In the first eight months of 2020, Portland Police Bureau (PPB) officers made 20,990 traffic stops. According to police data, between New Year’s Day and August 1st, 17.7% of the people stopped were Black — a significant overrepresentation of Portland’s Black population which was 5.8% as of 2019. Over the same time period, 64.9% of those stopped were white, a number that underrepresents that demographic by by over 12% (whites make up about 77% of Portland’s population).
Between April 1st and August 1st, Black people accounted for 12 of the 57 people (21.2%) stopped by the PPB who weren’t driving.
These numbers come to light less than a week after police in Kenosha, Wisconsin shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back as he stood in the street outside his SUV and amid a tense public dialogue about systemic racism and nightly protests against racist polices and police brutality.
Traffic stops have also come under intense scrutiny from transportation advocates because they are the most common way people come into contact with police officers and research has shown racial bias often comes into play. We’ve watched videos in horror far too many times that show officers using excessive, often lethal, force against Black drivers.
Yesterday, after several NBA teams announced they wouldn’t participate in playoff games to show support for Black Lives Matter and Jacob Blake, former Portland Trail Blazer Maurice Harkless shared a personal story on Twitter about an experience he had with a police officer while driving in Portland. The officer pulled him over and treated him brusquely for no apparent reason, only to change his attitude upon learning he was a famous athlete.
Back in July the Portland Bureau of Transportation ended a long traffic enforcement partnership with the PPB out of concerns that the stops could not be done equitably and it was fear of racial bias that led PBOT’s Vision Zero Task Force to not prioritize increased enforcement as part of its official recommendations in 2015.
The stops data also shows that PPB Traffic Division officers were responsible for 56% of all traffic stops between January and August of this year. In 2018, former Traffic Division Captain Michael Crebs told the Vision Zero Task Force that the disproportionate rate of Black drivers pulled over was likely not only a sign of implicit bias but also due to the fact that, statistically speaking, the majority of PBOT’s “High Crash Network” intersections are located in communities with an above-average rate of people of color (and other “equity indicators”). “I want to go out there and give the level of enforcement I want, but I don’t want to over-police. It’s hard to know, where is that balance? If I don’t send my officers out there to engage in enforcement, then we don’t care. If we enforce too much, then we’re over-policing.”
“Everyone in this room has implicit bias, but the three officers in this room have a higher threshold because we have the authority to seize you and your property,” Cpt. Crebs continued. “… I have to wash that stuff out of my brain as best I can… and I know I can’t completely rid myself of that.”
There’s been a push in some cities to take traffic stops out of police hands. I’m not aware of similar efforts in Portland. Asked about it at a recent budget meeting, PBOT Director Chris Warner said it’s a question for the city’s government relations staff. He referred to citations given by automated cameras and the existing state law that requires a police officer to observe and sign off on each one of them.
Take a closer look at PPB traffic stop data on their website.
— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and email@example.com
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