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Portland Police will de-emphasize minor traffic violations in move toward racial justice

Mayor Wheeler and Chief Lovell at today’s press conference.

“It’s not a directive change. Officers will still have the ability to do a lower-level stop if they need to… we’re just re-emphasizing our focus to the moving violations that are more safety related.”
— Chuck Lovell, Portland police chief

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Police Chief Chuck Lovell addressed media in an online press conference today to explain a new approach to traffic enforcement.

“Officers will soon be working under new directions to focus their enforcement on moving violations that represent an immediate danger to public safety,” Wheeler explained. “This will enable the Police Bureau to focus its traffic enforcement efforts on safety related issues, which must be our priority.”

PBOT Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty approves. “Thank you Mayor Wheeler and Chief Lovell for this significant change that will advance the cause of racial justice in policing,” she shared in a statement today. “This allows police to focus on traffic violations that pose an immediate safety threat and other higher priority crime mitigation efforts, such as solving crimes related to the increase in gun violence.”

The move comes as part of ongoing police reforms that have been demanded by many in the community since racial justice protests began in May 2020. According to 2019 Portland Police Bureau data that was released last fall, white Portlanders — who make up 75% of the total population — were subject to just 65% of PPB traffic stops. During the same period, Black Portlanders — who make up just 6% of the population — made up 18% of stops.

Mayor Wheeler and Chief Lovell made it clear that police still have the ability to stop anyone they’d like, but they must focus on vehicle and road user behaviors that pose imminent threats and/or provide adequate probable cause for a larger, more serious crime. The goal is to not only reduce the likelihood of Black and people of color being treated unfairly by officers, but also to apply PPB resources to more pressing needs. Chief Lovell said he wants officers to, “Focus on safety violations and enforcement in high crash corridors. We need to focus on behaviors that result in serious or fatal crashes, such as speeding, DUI, distracted driving, failure to obey traffic control devices and things of that nature.”

“Non-moving violations and lower-level infractions [can still lead to a traffic stop],” Lovell continued. “But with an emphasis on safety and [they must] have an actionable investigative factor to them.” (A bill in the Oregon legislature (HB 2002) would have made similar traffic enforcement reforms statewide, but it did not pass.)

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Lovell repeatedly stated that the new stance is merely a set of instructions for officers and not a formal, procedural directive. “Officers will still have the ability to do a lower-level stop if they need to. It’s not a directive change. It doesn’t take away that ability, we’re just re-emphasizing our focus to the moving violations that are more safety related.”

“Their justification for [the new policy] makes sense it just scares me a bit.”

But Lovell might be making a distinction without a difference. The takeaway from today’s news for most people will likely be that the PPB no longer cares about certain offenses like missing plates, broken headlights and taillights, expired tags, rolling stop signs, and so on.

When KPTV (Portland Fox affiliate) Pete Ferryman tweeted today that, “Portland Police⁩ will no longer pursue minor traffic infractions unless there is an immediate safety threat,” the reactions were unsurprising. “So speed limits are officially passé? Noted,” said one person.

For vulnerable road users like bicycle riders, any increase in lawlessness — whether “low-level” or not — can lead to more stressful and dangerous streets. Road safety is about culture and social mores as much as it is about infrastructure and enforcement.

Upon hearing today’s news, a friend texted to say, “Their justification for [the new policy] makes sense it just scares me a bit.”

Police enforcement, racial bias, and how they intersect with traffic safety have been a challenge for the PPB long before the George Floyd protests. In July 2020, the City of Portland transportation bureau formally stepped back from working with the PPB on a crosswalk enforcement program.

Chief Lovell and Mayor Wheeler will need to monitor how this new approach plays out. Past leaders of the PPB Traffic Division have raised concerns that too much focus of enforcement resources on designated “high crash corridors” (sections of streets with above average rates of deaths and injuries) can also reflect a bias since stats show that areas with lower incomes and a higher proportion of Black and people of color have higher crash rates.

Mayor Wheeler is under pressure to deliver on police reforms as an effort to recall him prepares to begin collecting signatures July 1st. At today’s press conference Wheeler said he values a police bureau that is, “able to evolve with the changing needs and dynamics of the community.”

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