Police chief, union leader warn budget cuts would end Traffic Division

Traffic Division headquarters in St. Johns.
(Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

The head of the Portland Police Bureau and the Portland Police Association union have sent out dire warnings about impacts to law enforcement capabilities if a proposal (PDF) for $18 million in budget cuts are passed by council next week. Chief Chuck Lovell and PPA President Daryl Turner have many concerns about the cuts including what they say would lead to the end of the Traffic Division — the unit that issues about 90% of all traffic tickets, responds to transportation-related concerns and investigates serious injury and fatal crashes.

As we shared yesterday, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty and Commissioner Chloe Eudaly have laid out the cuts as part of their ongoing efforts to rein in a “bloated” budget and “rethink” policing — which they feel isn’t in line with Portland values and has become overly-aggressive and militarized.

Their $18 million proposal would amount a 15% reduction to the PPB’s current $230 million General Fund allocation, which makes up about 4.1% of the total city budget. As outlined in a memo to city council members October 19th, the cuts would require PPB to reduce spending bureau-wide on expenses like munitions and officer overtime, and eliminate 42 positions recently left vacant due to retirements. Hardesty’s proposal also call for eliminating the Special Emergency Response Team, a move that would save $634,000.

In a statement yesterday, Chief Lovell said, “The Bureau would have to eliminate programs that provide necessary services… These include the Traffic Division [which] investigates traffic fatalities and attempts to reduce crashes through traffic law enforcement.” And PPA President Turner echoed that claim when he said the proposal would lead to, “Elimination of the Traffic Division, resulting in the lost enforcement of traffic laws, deterrence of bad driving that can have deadly consequences, and investigations into traffic fatalities.”

A closer look at Hardesty’s proposal reveals no specific requirement to end the Traffic Division. And the Commissioner says if PPB made that move it would be their decision, not hers.


PPB programs 2020-21 adopted budget.

Just for context, the Traffic Division is one of many “specialty units” at the PPB. Its current annual funding is $8.4 million which is 3.7% of the total police budget (compare that the the Drugs & Vice Unit at 3.4% or Information Technology Unit at 4.3%). While a small piece of the PPB pie, the Traffic Division has an outsized impact on our experience as road users. They issue about 90% of all traffic-related citations, they conduct “enforcement actions” on crosswalk laws, DUII and speeding, and their Major Crash Team investigates all fatal and serious injury crashes.

“While these were not items I recommended the bureau cut, they are the subject-matter experts. They’ve shown us they can in fact meet the cut amount proposed.”
— Jo Ann Hardesty, city commissioner

Reached for comment about the police statement today, Commissioner Hardesty said she was pleased to see them “having internal conversations to rethink community safety and assess what is or is not needed to serve all Portlanders.” As for the concerns about the Traffic Division, Hardesty said, “While these were not items I recommended the bureau cut, they are the subject-matter experts. They’ve shown us they can in fact meet the cut amount proposed, and I am open to talking with them about how these transitions can be made as I know the community is anxious to explore more ways to keep Portlanders safe on roads and sidewalks.”

Hardesty has long been skeptical of the role of police in traffic enforcement. In fact she and her current close ally Commissioner Eudaly used to disagree strongly on the issue. Eudaly, who leads the transportation bureau, used to strongly support police enforcement. Hardesty on the other hand has long been concerned about giving armed officers such a large role in traffic stops.

At a candidate forum in April 2018 Hardesty said she’s “absolutely terrified of more enforcement” on our streets. And when Hardesty shared concerns about “over-criminalizing one segment of our community” with enhanced traffic enforcement — without first improving infrastructure — as part of Vision Zero efforts, Eudaly said she was “disappointed” in her opinion. And in May 2019 Eudaly and Hardesty disagreed about how to spend the PPB’s cannabis tax revenue. Eudaly wanted more Traffic Division officers hired. Hardesty wanted the focus to be on clearing records of people jailed for minor drug possession.


Instead of more enforcement that is likely to lead to profiling and disparate impacts on Black Portlanders, Hardesty wants better infrastructure and technology. “What we know from public health experts (such as Dr. Jon Jay from Boston University) is when we look at these issues through a public health lens, we see that traffic enforcement does not improve outcomes; technology and infrastructure upgrades do. I am more than happy to look at reinvestments that can be made to infrastructure to build systems that can truly keep Portlanders safe.”

And Eudaly now agrees.

In her closing remarks at the dramatic city council meeting Wednesday, Eudaly did something rare for a politician. She admitted she was wrong:

“I understand [my colleagues’] fear of getting this wrong. We could get this wrong. That’s where I was just 16 months ago. I was afraid to support Commissioner Hardesty’s budget amendments to cut specialty units. I was concerned that the void left by eliminating these teams could lead to even worse outcomes for our community. So, my heart was in the right place. But I was wrong. It’s hard to imagine to imagine an alternative to a system when it’s all you’ve ever known. But that’s what this moment demands of us.”

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and
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