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Budget exercise causes alarm as Police Bureau proposes elimination of Traffic Division

Posted by on February 3rd, 2016 at 10:55 am

Traffic Division HQ St Johns
Not going anywhere.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Local media coverage of the Portland Police Bureau’s 2016-2017 budget proposal has sent shockwaves through the community. But there’s no reason for alarm. Here’s what’s going on…

Back in November, Mayor Charlie Hales asked all bureau directors to cut 5 percent from their budgets. Despite the City enjoying “relative fiscal stability,” the Mayor said the cuts are necessary to address the affordable housing and homelessness crisis. This is how it goes every budget cycle: The Mayor issues “budget guidance,” then the directors send him proposals with that guidance in mind.

The police bureau’s budget has raised eyebrows because, in his budget that was made public yesterday (PDF here), Chief Larry O’Dea proposed the elimination of three speciality units that have a major impact on all our lives. One of those units, the Traffic Division, writes over 90 percent of all traffic citations and is responsible for keeping our streets safe and sane. The elimination of the Traffic Division would cut 44 positions and would save the City $4.3 million in the fiscal year.

ppb-screener
Detail from police bureau budget proposal.

Here’s more from the police bureau’s budget request about the impact this cut would have (emphases mine):

The Traffic Division would be eliminated, including the photo radar and red light camera enforcement programs. Primary responsibility for traffic safety will be assumed by precinct patrol. The Canine and Emergency Management Unit will be transferred to other divisions within the bureau.

The elimination of this specialty unit will have several negative impacts on the bureau’s capabilities. The division performs focused, high-visibility and grant-funded traffic safety enforcement missions that would not otherwise be performed. The Traffic Division issues roughly 80,000 traffic citations each year, which is 94% of all Portland traffic citations, which would not otherwise be issued. Traffic officers are the primary responders to DUII cases, and their targeted missions interdict roughly 80% of DUII offenders that would not otherwise be stopped. Their familiarity with the complex on-scene process involved with DUII stops makes them substantially more efficient than most patrol officers. Roughly 4,700 additional hours of precinct officer time would be spent processing the 20% of remaining DUII cases. The major crash investigations team would become a detached assignment of officers assigned to regular duties in core functions. The sworn staff positions required to issue citations of the red light camera program and photo radar speed enforcement program would be eliminated and those programs discontinued and more than 38,000 annual citations would no longer be issued. Motorcycle officers would be dispersed to precinct patrol duties. Coordination and availability of their operation for dignitary protection and special events would be significantly reduced. Grant funding for traffic safety enforcement would no longer be available because it is predicated on the bureau having a dedicated traffic safety division. Because of the elimination of the focused patrol and enforcement provided by the Traffic Division, the impacts of cutting the division is anticipated to increase the number of traffic collisions, number of driving while impaired and/or distracted, and number of traffic accident fatalities. The bureau was already anticipating negative impacts on traffic safety resulting from the legalization of marijuana in the State of Oregon based on the State of Colorado’s experience with recreational marijuana legalization. In Colorado, in the first year that retail marijuana was legalized, there was a 32% increase in marijuana-related traffic deaths, and marijuana-related traffic deaths increased from 10% to 20% of all traffic deaths. There has already been one marijuana-related traffic death in Portland in 2016.


The police bureau’s Bureau Advisory Committee said the negative impact of this and other services in the five percent cut package, “is too extreme especially to services provided to the community and vulnerable populations in the areas of domestic violence, traffic safety and school safety.”

“Because we’re already so lean, we don’t have any good places to cut anything.”
— Larry O’Dea, Portland Police Chief

The thought of eliminating the Traffic Division is very worrisome to say the least — especially as Portland gets serious about Vision Zero. But the good news is it’s just a thought. We can all but assure you it won’t be cut. This is all about process and a bit of politics.

When I saw the proposal I asked Police Chief Larry O’Dea (a former captain of the Traffic Division) to help us understand what’s going on.

“We are not anticipating any cuts,” he said. According to Chief O’Dea, his bureau is simply going through the budget exercise so the Mayor can see how a five percent cut will look. And at the police bureau, those cuts look so horrible they are very unlikely. “Because we’re already so lean, we don’t have any good places to cut anything,” O’Dea continued. “This cut would mean all our specialized functions short of gang enforcement.”

Not only does O’Dea say the police bureau will be spared any budget cuts, he says they’re anticipating gaining a few new positions. He mentioned needing more officers to meet their commitment to Vision Zero, restoring a night shift officer and bulking up their response to “marijuana-related driving.”

While Mayor Hales is sticking to his process and requiring all bureaus to take part in this budget cut proposal exercise, he has already hinted that core city functions like these police services won’t be on the chopping block. In his November memo, Hales said, “I will look to preserve core public safety functions… I will continue to ensure that City resources are allocated to programs that have a direct impact on the lives of our citizens and that we focus on maintaining our assets and infrastructure.”

This is all a good reminder to stay engaged with the budget process (it’s also reminder of how important the police budget is!). Stay tuned for public hearings on April 5th and 12th where you can share your feedback with the Mayor. The final budget adoption at City Council is set for June 9th. Learn more about how the City budget works at the Budget Office website.

— Jonathan Maus, (503) 706-8804 – jonathan@bikeportland.org

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44 Comments
  • Buzz February 3, 2016 at 11:02 am

    They proposed this specifically because they knew it would be unacceptable. That’s how you play budget politics.

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) February 3, 2016 at 11:09 am

      Yes. some politics on both sides. It’s a way for O’Dea to make his case that he needs more money and it could also be a play by Mayor Hales to play the hero when he “saves” the police budget.

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      • Paul Wilkins February 3, 2016 at 11:35 am

        And that is another reason why we can’t have nice things. The discussion starts off in nonsenseville and ends up in nowheresville.

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    • David Hampsten, now in Greensboro NC February 3, 2016 at 12:33 pm

      PBOT would (most years) do pretty much the same thing by offering to eliminate 25% of the streetlights, to cut the City power bill, which is paid for through the general fund, and not GTR. PBOT even has a “rolling blackout” plan, ready to be used just in case. Inevitably, City Council finds funding elsewhere.

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  • Pete S. February 3, 2016 at 11:13 am

    For as few times I’ve seen someone pulled over receiving a citation in my 8 years living here, it’s hard to believe we have a traffic division now.

    Recommended Thumb up 27

  • Adam H. February 3, 2016 at 11:16 am

    This budget “exercise” was confusing for people not familiar with how city budgeting works, so I’m glad that this was clarified.

    This was almost certainly a ploy to make sure the Mayor didn’t cut PPB’s budget. Still, the likelihood of PPB getting a budget cut was unlikely in the first place, given how concerned Mayor Hales has been about not having enough officers.

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    • Adam H. February 3, 2016 at 11:19 am

      This also emphasizes how we cannot rely on enforcement alone for Vision Zero. We need self-policing street design that works all the time, budget cuts or not.

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      • Eric Leifsdad February 3, 2016 at 2:56 pm

        Beaverton seems to have no problem funding their red light cameras and speed vans. Well, no problems except for the people who complain about paying fines and then actually slow down.

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  • Andy February 3, 2016 at 11:26 am

    This is just standard budgetary politics. Pick out a function to be cut that you know won’t be acceptable while shielding those expenditures that could be cut with minimal impact.

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  • reader February 3, 2016 at 11:36 am

    Curiously, I was more concerned when I heard the Water Bureau was talking about turning off the Benson Bubblers to save money.

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    • Buzz February 3, 2016 at 11:55 am

      After watching street people washing their feet and other body parts in the Benson Bubblers downtown, I won’t drink from them anymore.

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      • paikiala February 3, 2016 at 12:02 pm

        Chlorination not safe enough for you?

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        • Buzz February 3, 2016 at 12:57 pm

          Do you have any idea what the actual chlorine residual at any Benson Bubbler is? I thought not.

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      • Gary B February 4, 2016 at 8:28 am

        I always thought yours is an interesting sentiment, one I hear a lot. Personally, I drink the water coming out of the nozzle, I manage to not lick the bowl or fixture. When someone sees a person peeing in the upstream pipe, let me know.

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    • Adam H. February 3, 2016 at 11:58 am

      Threaten to take away a beloved and historical icon or threaten to eliminate a vital service to the city. It’s the same tactic. It would be nice if our bureaus could be open and honest, rather than playing chicken with the Mayor.

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  • El Biciclero February 3, 2016 at 12:02 pm

    “This cut would mean all our specialized functions short of gang enforcement.”

    This is an interesting statement. Does it mean that even if cuts were realistically expected, Gang Enforcement would be untouchable? I’m curious what kills and injures more people and destroys more property each year: traffic or gangs?

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    • Chadwick F February 3, 2016 at 12:13 pm

      Well, they are just gang accidents after all.

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      • Adam H. February 3, 2016 at 1:09 pm

        You mean gang crashes, right? ;-)

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    • Middle of the Road guy February 3, 2016 at 1:35 pm

      You appear to be assuming the policing efforts would have similar impacts on both areas. It might be that policing would have larger impacts on gang crime, than traffic.

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      • El Biciclero February 3, 2016 at 4:29 pm

        That’s a fair point. Maybe gang crime is seriously reduced by having specialized enforcement, while traffic mayhem is barely affected at all. However, I could imagine that if drivers (a much larger segment of the population than gang members) all knew that there was a 94% reduction in the chances of them getting caught for anything, there would be quite an up-tick in bad driving behavior—especially DUII and hit-and-run, which has already been on the rise of late.

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    • GlowBoy February 5, 2016 at 9:10 am

      ” I’m curious what kills and injures more people and destroys more property each year: traffic or gangs?”

      Since we know cars kill more Portlanders than guns do, I’m not curious about this at all.

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  • BeavertonRider February 3, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    Hales once again failing to display leadership. A 5% across-the-board reduction is no plan at all and reveals a lack of competency and creativity. Rather than cutting more from lower priority City spending programs, Hales says, cut Police. What a sad state of affairs.

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    • Adam H. February 3, 2016 at 1:06 pm

      He’s not cutting police. From the article, emphasis mine:

      Back in November, Mayor Charlie Hales asked all bureau directors to cut 5 percent from their budgets.

      This is how it goes every budget cycle: The Mayor issues “budget guidance,” then the directors send him proposals with that guidance in mind.

      While Mayor Hales is sticking to his process and requiring all bureaus to take part in this budget cut proposal exercise, he has already hinted that core city functions like these police services won’t be on the chopping block.

      Recommended Thumb up 2

      • Adam H. February 3, 2016 at 1:07 pm

        Messed up the HTML tags…

        Back in November, Mayor Charlie Hales asked all bureau directors to cut 5 percent from their budgets.

        This is how it goes every budget cycle: The Mayor issues “budget guidance,” then the directors send him proposals with that guidance in mind.

        While Mayor Hales is sticking to his process and requiring all bureaus to take part in this budget cut proposal exercise, he has already hinted that core city functions like these police services won’t be on the chopping block.

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    • JeffS February 3, 2016 at 10:05 pm

      Asking to see a 5% reduction plan is perfectly acceptable. Blindly applying it, not so much.

      If I were to call out lack of leadership, it would be if he failed to make an example of department heads who turned the turned in disingenuous proposals. Chalking it up to political gamesmanship does not strike me as an acceptable excuse.

      But who knows. Maybe the chief really doesn’t like traffic enforcement .I suppose anything’s possible.

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  • B. Carfree February 3, 2016 at 12:34 pm

    I get that this is just politics in its usual ugly form and I also wish we could have adult budget conversations. Maybe we should start electing some adults who will terminate the employment of those who engage in this sort of thing. Budgets are priorities and should be treated as such.

    That said, it is probably obvious to anyone who has ever been on a Portland street that traffic enforcement isn’t even dealing with the tip of the iceberg. I suspect that if we were to increase its personnel by ten-fold for five years we could nearly achieve zero traffic deaths as well as solve many other crimes in a timely fashion. (Criminals drive like criminals, so they are easy to catch once you train people to follow the law when driving.)

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  • Todd Hudson February 3, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    I called the Traffic Division a few weeks ago and their voicemail said, its “no longer open to the public”.

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  • dan February 3, 2016 at 12:46 pm

    Cut the traffic division, but hold on to 3 or 4 staff who are empowered to write traffic tickets based on citizen-submitted video of infractions. We’ll make money and get better enforcement!

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  • Cop BS February 3, 2016 at 1:24 pm

    If you really want to see where to cut the police budget with no reduction in services, read the porky police union contract.

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  • m February 3, 2016 at 1:27 pm

    So happy Hales is not running for reelection.

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  • rachel b February 3, 2016 at 1:34 pm

    Unmanned photo radar cams are now legal in Oregon, as of the new year. Please slap a few of those up and down my street, oh dear Santa. SE 26th, between Clinton and Powell, now known as Happy Fun Fun Happy Speed With Impunity Alley. Merely one of many in the city, now.

    THANK YOU, Jonathan, for this article. I just about blew a gasket when I heard about the Traffic Division being up for (WHAAT?!?!?!?) elimination. The other departments under consideration are likewise important and I was serially aghast.

    My fears have been allayed a little by your article (I never count my chickens etc…) but the initial news left me with feelings I’m too familiar with anymore–anger, frustration, impotence, hopelessness, an increasing sense of isolation. I’m worried about SE 26th being ceded further to UPRR and impatient commuters/trendy SE Division piehole-stuffers, the bike lanes removed because of ODOT’s (UPRR-influenced) wishes and their coercion.

    I’ve been keeping watch at my window and it’s remarkable what a difference (vulnerable, brave) cyclists make on SE 26th, traffic calming-wise. Overwhelmingly, even the most headstrong of driver/speeders back off and slow down when they pass a cyclist.

    I personally have nowhere near the limitless energy it seemingly takes to tackle these things, as a mere puny citizen. But why should we have to move heaven and earth to get what we’re supposed to have already–even a little enforcement/traffic calming on our streets? Why should we have to beg, petition, email, call again and again and again, usually to no avail, for things so basic as clean and safe parks and trails?

    I’ve begun to wonder if Hales is just going out on a big “Eff you, Portland!” before he rides off into the sunset, because it’s getting comical, just absurd. His repeated, stubborn neglect of the vast majority of his citizens and their concerns has made me think of a motto for him and his administration, though:

    “Portland: You’re On Your Own.”

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  • bikeninja February 3, 2016 at 1:47 pm

    It seems like the Traffic division would be self supporting. If they just increased the number of tickets given out for failure to yeild to pedestrians or parking the wrong way on a street the cities ticket revenues would skyrocket. Many cities support their entire budget on fees from traffic related tickets, what is going on here.

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    • El Biciclero February 3, 2016 at 2:17 pm

      Another great revenue stream would be seizure and auction of cars found being driven by suspended or revoked drivers. Plus, it might make it that much harder for those drivers to keep driving; they’d find a way, but it would be more expensive.

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  • Daniel Costantino February 3, 2016 at 2:28 pm

    If the Mayor and commissioners want budget cut proposals that aren’t just scare-mongering, they can’t subcontract out the first draft to the primary impacted party. Get mayor’s and commissioner’s office staff to do the first draft, show the departments just how serious this is, thus motivating the departments to come up with something actually useful for the purposes of discussion.

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    • El Biciclero February 3, 2016 at 4:25 pm

      “Get mayor’s and commissioner’s office staff to do the first draft, show the departments just how serious this is…”

      Wouldn’t that just push the scare-mongering up the chain?

      “Look, Department X, unless you can come up with something better, we’re going to cut your most critical service units”.

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      • Daniel Costantino February 3, 2016 at 10:54 pm

        That’s a fair point. It would certainly up the ante. Things could get contentious pretty fast. But resource allocation is contentious by nature when resources are scarce. If the mayor doesn’t intend to seriously consider police, there’s no defensible reason to ask for a proposal.

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        • Daniel Costantino February 3, 2016 at 10:55 pm

          Correction: to seriously consider *cuts to* police

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  • SE February 3, 2016 at 7:13 pm

    >>The sworn staff positions required to issue citations of the red light camera program and photo radar speed enforcement program would be eliminated and those programs discontinued

    I’m confused. Thought that those cameras are installed, purchased and maintained by private vendors. That the photos are screened by the vendors and the best candidates are forwarded on to law enforcement. Is this now not so ?
    The vendor gets the majority of the proceeds and the city gets a small cut.

    Please correct if I am wrong, but it seems like the number of personnel needed to take the paperwork from the vendor and click an approval to issue would be small ?

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  • Phil Richman February 4, 2016 at 9:23 am

    What would it take to get more of our police force on bikes? Especially downtown & Central east side. It would help achieve multiple objectives: better community relations, accelerate Vision Zero, reduce costs. Anyone at the city pursuing this?

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  • Mark smith February 6, 2016 at 10:46 am

    Put speed and red light cameras all over the city. You don’t really need traffic enforcement. It can be highly automated as other nations have proven.

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  • Jake February 10, 2016 at 5:44 pm

    This is absurd. Who gets to decide where they make their cuts? I am sure they could keep the traffic division if they didn’t drive around in $30k cars, or if they didn’t fly helicopters all hours of the night, or if they demilitarized a little – deferring SWAT cases to the FBI. The discretionary spending of each division account for a major part of the budget. I would suggest starting there.

    You: “Honey, I think we need to cut back our spending a little.”
    Your spouse: “Ok, we’ll shut off the power”
    You: “I was thinking maybe carpooling, or eating out less.”

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