Despite police directive, Portlanders of color still overrepresented in traffic stops

A Portland Police officer approaches a car user on SE Clinton Street. (Photo: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)
The racial demographics of drivers PPB has stopped since 2017 broken into the Traffic and Non-Traffic Divisions. (Source: PPB)

Being stopped in traffic is the most common way most people come into contact with the police, but we don’t all experience those stops equally. In Portland (and throughout the United States), people of color are overrepresented in traffic stops, with Black people experiencing the most drastic effects of this bias. And this is more than an inconvenience: Black people across the country have been killed by cops using lethal force during otherwise routine traffic stops.

As a result, advocates have taken on this issue as both a racial and transportation justice cause, and Portland officials have indicated they want to make a change. Last summer, Mayor Ted Wheeler and Police Chief Chuck Lovell directed Portland police officers to make fewer traffic stops, especially for offenses deemed low-importance, where racial bias is more prevalent.

“We need to focus on behaviors that result in serious or fatal crashes, such as speeding, driving while impaired, distracted driving, etc.” Lovell said in a press release last year. “Stops for non-moving violations or lower level infractions will still be allowed, but they must have a safety component or have an actionable investigative factor to it.”

A report on 2021 traffic stops released by the Portland Police Bureau (PPB) earlier this month sheds light into what – if anything – has changed in the year since. The big takeaway? Despite a serious drop in traffic stop rates, large racial disparities remain.

PPB’s traffic stop rates were way down in 2021 – the report says PPB officers “performed 44 percent fewer driver stops and 80 percent fewer pedestrian stops than in the prior year.” But this is not necessarily as a result of Wheeler and Lovell’s instructions, and it didn’t appear to make an impact on the racial biases shown against Portlanders of color. Instead, it appears to be because of a staffing shift that sent the Bureau’s Traffic Division into disarray.

Before 2021, there were two groups of officers – from the Traffic and Non-Traffic Divisions – making roughly the same number of traffic stops each year for different reasons. The stated mission of the Traffic Division is to “address behaviors of road users, including drivers, bicycle riders, and pedestrians, that might lead to a collision.” The Non-Traffic Division’s goal “primarily relates to the reduction and prevention of violent crime in the City” and involves “discretionary traffic stops to contact potential subjects of interest.”

These discretionary stops are often made for offenses Wheeler and Hovell deemed “low-level” – i.e., an expired license plate or missing tags. They also leave a lot more room for officers to use their own – potentially racially biased – judgment. Even after Wheeler and Lovell guided officers to avoid those stops, the bulk of Non-Traffic Division stops were for offenses deemed minor.

Differences in calculating racial disparities

PPB’s internal data indicates Black Portlanders were not overrepresented in traffic stops in 2021. This is not the case when compared with census data. (Source: PPB)

PPB uses its own benchmarks to compare their data on citywide racial demographics to calculate disparities. Recent census data indicates Portland’s Black population sits at about 5.9% of the total. Even though the actual number may be slightly higher due to census counting errors and a growing population, this percentage is generally accepted and has been used in the past to indicate racial profiling within PPB traffic stops.

According to the report, Black people made up almost 18% of the population stopped in traffic in 2021 – meaning they are overrepresented threefold. But PPB’s internal data says otherwise.

PPB uses injury collision rates – the demographics of people involved in injury collisions investigated by PPB officers – as a benchmark to use when comparing their traffic stop data to the general population. For the Non-Traffic Division, PPB uses the demographics of crime victimization rates as a benchmark. Both of these benchmarks (see charts below) present a far higher percentage of non-white Portlanders than actually live here.

According to their internal data, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander drivers were the only group overrepresented in PPB traffic stops in 2021, and otherwise, PPB officers did not show racial discrimination within their traffic stop procedures. But given the lack of substantial police oversight within the Bureau and its history (and ongoing demonstration) of institutional racism, some people have called this practice into question.

What’s next?

The report states the “slight declines witnessed in Minor Moving Violation and Non-Moving Violation stops” are “an encouraging step and demonstrates the Bureau’s willingness to act and change.” But the racial disparities have not improved, which Lovell himself has acknowledged.

It’s unclear the effect the Wheeler and Lovell’s instructions and the PPB staff shortage had on Portland’s traffic crash fatality rates, which were exceptionally high last year and aren’t too much better this year. Even if PPB officers had directed their attention to the most dangerous offenses, data suggests increased policing doesn’t work as a method of preventing traffic crashes and deaths.

Instead, advocates say infrastructure changes are what’s needed to improve street safety. Some advocates are in favor of solutions like traffic camera speed enforcement, which can now be processed without costly and time-consuming police involvement.


Read the PPB’s full report here.

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nate
nate
2 months ago

Before 2021, there were two groups of officers – from the Traffic and Non-Traffic Divisions – making roughly the same number of traffic stops each year for different reasons. The stated mission of the Traffic Division is to “address behaviors of road users, including drivers, bicycle riders, and pedestrians, that might lead to a collision.” The Non-Traffic Division’s goal “primarily relates to the reduction and prevention of violent crime in the City” and involves “discretionary traffic stops to contact potential subjects of interest.”

Let’s see if I’ve got this right…

So, prior to 2021, you’ve got half the traffic stops being done by the Traffic Division; the ones intended to address dangerous behavior. And the other half of the stops appear to be “discretionary” and are (ostensibly) intended to address violent crime.

Then, in response to budget cuts (again, ostensibly), you eliminate the Traffic Division, but allow the discretionary stops to continue, in the interest of addressing violent crime.

And now we have the results… Traffic stops are down by nearly half (makes sense, given the above). Traffic injuries and deaths are up. Violent crime is up. And if you use actual population numbers rather than just picking your own denominator, traffic stops are just as racially biased as before. And, anecdotally at least, driver behavior is worse than ever.

Here’s a crazy idea. How about we cut back on the “discretionary” stops, which by all signs are still racist and aren’t actually doing anything to help traffic behavior (because they aren’t intended to). Then we can reinstate the Traffic Division, who can then go back to just stopping people based on who is actually a danger on the road rather than the color of their skin. Crazy, right?

Watts
Watts
2 months ago
Reply to  nate

Using population as your denominator doesn’t make sense. What matters is the infraction rate, which is hard to measure directly, but can be estimated indirectly.

(Otherwise, you have to explain the wild discrimination the police are committing against males, who represented 68.3% of traffic stops in 2021.)

But otherwise, I agree with you. The discretionary stops are the problem, not the traffic stops.

Middle of the Road Guy
Middle of the Road Guy
2 months ago
Reply to  Watts

People think equal outcomes = equality.

Watts
Watts
2 months ago

A group is overrepresented if they are being stopped more than the level of violations they commit. The data presented above shows that African American drivers represented 15.1% of the traffic injuries, which is probably a good surrogate for the rate at which that group commits serious traffic violations. Since that group represented only 12.7% of stops, they are probably under represented.

Hispanics are slightly overrepresented (11.8% vs 12.1%), but whites much more so (64.7% vs 68.2%).

The data does not support the thesis of this article.

PS
PS
2 months ago

It would be awesome to include some justification for ignoring the likelihood of police interaction in areas of the city subject to the greatest numbers of 911 calls for property and violent crime and their demographic makeup. I.e. Is it remotely plausible that individuals who don’t much care about laws respecting property rights or those of prohibiting violence on others, also care much less about laws for operating a vehicle? Further, is it remotely plausible that areas requesting police presence the most frequently may also end up with those police enforcing the various laws they are supposed to with greater frequency in those areas?

This would certainly contribute to data suggesting a racial bias, but as Watts notes, a racial bias can’t be the reasonable conclusion.

Watts
Watts
2 months ago

in short: PPB officers did not reduce their discretionary stops by a significant enough margin to rectify the large racial disparities that exist within that procedure

You just slipped your (unsupported) conclusion back in as if it were proven. It’s not. We don’t actually know if there is a racial disparity.

I primarily focused on traffic stops because 1) I have a level of discomfort with pretextual stops due to the lack of individualized suspicion; 2) it’s what was mentioned in the article title; 3) the metric against which to measure bias seems clearer to me than with pretextual stops; and 4) traffic stops are often claimed to be biased (very often, and by many, in this forum, and seem more relevant to the conversations we typically have).

If a police officer wrongfully thinks a certain demographic of people “don’t care much about laws respecting property rights or those of prohibiting violence on others,”

That’s not what PS said: they specifically referenced “individuals”, and their argument that disrespect for the law in one area may translate to disrespect in another is hardly irrational. Calling that post “loaded with racism” requires more than just an assertion without explanation. I’ve re-read it 4 times now and I just don’t see it. Racism is a serious accusation.

PS: Just to correct one misstatement: “baselessly stop them in traffic for non-moving offenses”; pretext stops require an underlying offence for the stop, even if it is one that the officer might otherwise overlook. Again, not defending the easily-abused practice, but let’s be clear about what it is.

Watts
Watts
2 months ago

I will say that I am not the first or only person to write an article claiming there are racial disparities within traffic stop procedures

I don’t claim that you’re wrong, only that the data you presented refutes your case. There may well be other data that is convincing, and perhaps Chief Lovell has seen that. I haven’t.

That said, all of the reporting I’ve seen on this topic over the years (including from the usually thoughtful OBP) cites the same report and follows the same reasoning this article does, without any additional analysis or information. I think it is an understandable mistake, but it is still a mistake.

PS’s chain of reasoning is that there are communities that call 911 for service more than others, so it may be possible that the police pay more attention to those areas (which, arguably, they should), which might (in my words) contribute to a sense of over-policing. PS never said anything about ability to drive, only that disregard for traffic laws may correlate with disregard for other laws.

Again, none of this reasoning is racist, and it’s debatable whether it even describes racism. You did not call PS racist, but did say their post was “loaded with racism”, and while you are right to note the distinction, it seems a pretty minor one to me when using such inflammatory terms.

PS
PS
2 months ago

If what I said is actually racist, don’t you have to delete the comment? Isn’t that a rule here, there is a zero tolerance policy for racist comments? Or is something being “loaded with racism” different than being actually racist? Maybe Jonathan can opine here on where we should be drawing the line between calling comments racist that obviously aren’t, and actual racism?

bbcc
bbcc
2 months ago
Reply to  PS

“What, you can’t say ‘Black people don’t care about the law’ without getting called racist anymore??”

dwk
dwk
2 months ago
Reply to  bbcc

Not what he said at all but I am sure you feel better about yourself…

bbcc
bbcc
2 months ago
Reply to  dwk

“ Is it remotely plausible that individuals who don’t much care about laws respecting property rights or those of prohibiting violence on others, also care much less about laws for operating a vehicle?”

Adam
Adam
2 months ago
Reply to  bbcc

Where’s the part again about “black people don’t care about the law?” Such a sentiment is not even implied by PS’s comment.

Adam
Adam
2 months ago
Reply to  bbcc

BBCC, your reading comprehension skills are non-existent. Your asinine retort is why journalists, like Taylor Griggs, should be much more careful and thoughtful with how they articulate the difference between a comment “loaded with racism” versus calling out someone as racist. PS’s comment was neither.

dwk
dwk
2 months ago

We have a murder and crime epidemic here and that is not hyperbole and you write like you are doing a research paper…
Another murder last night, 51 so far this year.
I guess you must not care living where you do or whatever, but crime is a problem that is getting worse, not better, and worse all the time in the neighborhoods that you don’t live in obviously because it is not an abstract issue.
I don’t give a crap about “discretionary” stops are whatever statistics you present.
People are dying, maybe we should look at solutions.

bbcc
bbcc
2 months ago
Reply to  Watts

*Probably*? I can think of reasons to doubt that!

The relatively higher % of black people involved in traffic accidents could also be explained by the disproportionate amount of time black folks spend driving in areas with more dangerous infrastructure (blind corners, high speed roads, etc.), or having older cars without modern safety mechanisms like automatic braking or blind spot warning, or non-black people being more likely to want to report an accident to the police if a black person is the other driver.

You’re guessing. I wouldn’t make that leap.

SolarEclipse
SolarEclipse
2 months ago
Reply to  bbcc

You’re guessing as well.
The unfortunate thing is, everyone can interpret data to fit their own narrative, good or bad.
I think it’s good that people can respectfully post opposing opinions to articles that claim to have one interpretation. Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself, which, if any, opinion you agree with or form your own.

bbcc
bbcc
2 months ago
Reply to  SolarEclipse

Yup, that’s exactly what I’m saying — you could offer many different explanations for the race breakdown we see in that table (including Watts’ claim that black people probably commit serious infractions more often), and claiming any one of these explications is “probably” true is jumping to a conclusion with virtually no evidence.

Watts
Watts
2 months ago
Reply to  bbcc

The burden is on those trying to make the case that the stops are disproportional to explain the evidence. Without such explanation, the claim is just another unfounded accusation.

Watts
Watts
2 months ago
Reply to  bbcc

I’ve found that even when driving on dangerous streets, following the law *greatly* reduces my chance of crashing and the risk of getting hurt if I do. Also, by focusing on injury crashes, you remove some of the reporting bias that you suggest may creep in.

It’s not impossible you are right, of course, but it seems much more likely that people who crash often don’t habitually follow driving law (which is specifically intended to prevent crashes). I’d be happy to consider any evidence that better explains the 3x crash rate absent differing rates of driving violations. You present none and the article presents none.

Fundamentally, if you’re going to claim disproportionate treatment, as this article does, you can’t just claim that the fairly solid evidence disputing it might possibly be wrong, and therefore the case is proved. The case is not proved. In the absence of more evidence, the case is refuted.

bbcc
bbcc
2 months ago
Reply to  Watts

Using a population denominator is more naive — it makes no assumptions about racial differences in underlying infraction rates, which we could consider a null model. Your/the PPB’s decision to use crash-involved populations as a denominator is more opinionated — it assumes that the rate at which police are summoned to injury-related crashes closely mirrors the underlying rate at which traffic infractions happen. As a Bayesian, I believe the burden of evidence falls on the party advocating for the more opinionated causal model & prior. That means it’s up to you/the PPB to demonstrate that the observed distribution of crash rates by race closely mirrors the underlying distribution of infraction rates by race.

That is possible! I’d be very open to looking at evidence that adjusted for road & car features and looked at infraction rates by race. But for now, I don’t think that a black driver and a white driver on the same road in the same car would drive significantly differently, which is your fundamental claim.

Watts
Watts
2 months ago
Reply to  bbcc

The burden falls on those making the claim.

I am claiming nothing, except that those making the claims that stops are disproportional have offered no explanation for the evidence to the contrary.

As I said before, the claim of bias could very well be true (it certainly fits with my personal biases), but it is an unsupported allegation at this point.

I feel that you’ve already arrived at your conclusion, and are now trying to figure out how to support it, because, by golly, it just has to be true.

Maybe it’s not.

bbcc
bbcc
2 months ago
Reply to  Watts

You see, we’re both making claims, but mine is more naive. Black people make up about 6% of the population and 18% of those stopped by police. That means they are stopped disproportionately — based on census data, not a sample. You are making the claim that once you adjust for infraction rates, that disproportionality disappears, and further that you can estimate the racial distribution of traffic infractions using police crash statistics.

Watts
Watts
2 months ago
Reply to  bbcc

We have two possibilities: that crash rates reflect an underlying adherence to traffic laws, or that they don’t. You seem to be arguing that they don’t. If that were true, then it would follow that following traffic laws does not reduce one’s likelihood of experiencing a crash, which strikes me as an absurd (but theoretically possible) conclusion.

Would you also argue that the significantly elevated rate at which young men crash tells us nothing about how well they* follow traffic laws (such as speeding)?

At some point you need to make a judgement to draw a conclusion. Clearly our judgements differ. But then significant parts of this country believe things I find highly unlikely.

*In aggregate; the crash rate tells us nothing about how any individual young man drives.

PS
PS
2 months ago
Reply to  bbcc

Are you willing to apply the same approach to each instance of disproportionate police interaction regardless of underlying demographic? Might be a good way to test how committed you are to the data and not to a preconceived output you’re just looking for data to support.

ivan
ivan
2 months ago

Excellent coverage Taylor, thanks for the quality journalism here.

Wish The O or TV news did half this kind of analysis. (OPB and WW can’t do it all alone!)

Mark in NoPo
Mark in NoPo
2 months ago

The median black Portlander is 6.6 years younger than the median white Portlander, per the US Census Bureau. How much of the racial delta is explained by differing age distributions?

Matthew Hickey
Matthew Hickey
2 months ago

Good god this blog has really gone downhill. This is the rot that progressive social justice activism produces.

pigs
pigs
2 months ago
Reply to  Matthew Hickey

BikePortland: “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t disproportional harass people of color”

Matthew: “THIS IS PROGRESSIVE SOCIAL JUSTICE ROT”

yeah ok buddy

Watts
Watts
2 months ago
Reply to  pigs

Watts: “Hey, maybe we shouldn’t make claims of disproportionate harassment of people by race in the face of evidence it’s not true.”

Mark in NoPo
Mark in NoPo
2 months ago
Reply to  pigs

Whatever your perspective, monocausal explanations are rarely a sign of intellectual openness and rigor.

Middle of the Road Guy
Middle of the Road Guy
2 months ago
Reply to  Matthew Hickey

If we don’t have equal outcomes, it is racist.
Also, “cultural diversity”. You can’t expect equal outcomes with diverse inputs.

Stan
Stan
2 months ago

Using census data as a benchmark doesn’t really make sense, there are plenty of people who drive on Portland’s roads who are not city residents.

pigs
pigs
2 months ago
Reply to  Stan

Yeah, the surrounding Portland region is very well known for high populations of minorities… \\s

Mark in NoPo
Mark in NoPo
2 months ago
Reply to  Stan

The difference is starker still if you zoom out to the state level, with the median black Oregonian 8.1 years younger than the median white Oregonian.

Youth is the single biggest risk factor for dangerous driving, so this data might help us understand some of the the disparity in injury rates for people of different races, and some of the differing traffic stop rates, too.

Mark in NoPo
Mark in NoPo
2 months ago

The most stunning aspect of the data to my eyes is that traffic stops dropped from 76% from 2019 to 2021, down to 3,745, or 10.2 per day across the entire city.

Way more Portlanders had their car stolen last year than were pulled over for a traffic violation. Is it any wonder that auto deaths and injuries are spiking?

cc_rider
cc_rider
2 months ago
Reply to  Mark in NoPo

Don’t worry, PBOT is going to take bold and aggressive action! Their next move is to come up with signs that say “pretty pretty pretty please, dont speed pleassssee?” and distribute them on high crash corridors. #ZeroVision

Bill
Bill
2 months ago

I have some things that I am curious about here:

  • Why is the assumption made that the share of traffic stops should be proportionate to the share of crime victimization?
  • To me it does not seem obvious that expired tags or stuff like that is indicative of the likelihood someone committed assault, for example.
  • The assumption that the victim of crime and the perpetrator of crime are the same race is an interesting assumption, where I imagine there is probably some amount of factual basis for that assumption, but you could also look at that methodology as PPB explicitly targeting the victims of crime as a deliberate policy (which tracks pretty closely with the common complaint that black people are both over-policed and under-policed).
  • Is there evidence that traffic stops positively correlate to actually solving crimes?
  • I think nationally the evidence seems to be “not really”, and here I find a OPB article that suggests that for PPB historically they have found less contraband on the more heavily policed groups

At least in theory, it seems reasonable that policing practices should be proportionate to disparate rates of crime, but this actual methodology depends on assumptions that are at best dubious and at worst obviously dumb or actually contradicted by data.

It’s also really interesting to look at the absolute number of stops for black drivers between traffic and non-traffic divisions, where for 2017-2020 the non-traffic division stopped more than twice as many people as the traffic division. That suggests that two out of three traffic stops for black people over that time period were pretextual stops.

I don’t really think that traffic stops for dangerous driving behavior are *that* effective of a tool just because they don’t happen consistently enough to be as good of a deterrent as automated speed cameras etc, but at least those stops are targeting behaviors that are actually risky. It seems pretty obviously wrongheaded to devote twice as much effort to pretextual traffic stops that don’t seem to correlate particularly well to solving or preventing crimes.

Watts
Watts
2 months ago
Reply to  Bill

Why is the assumption made that the share of traffic stops should be proportionate to the share of crime victimization?

I’m not going to defend this claim, but I think I can explain it. It is pretty well established that most crime is “in-group” and infrequently crosses racial lines. From that, we can surmise that the victim demographics approximate that of perpetrators.

It is not a sign of bias if the police are stopping groups in proportion to the underlying offence rate (and might be a sign of bias if they didn’t). Ergo, traffic stops should be proportional to the share of crime victimization.

To me it does not seem obvious that expired tags or stuff like that is indicative of the likelihood someone committed assault, for example.

It’s not. The expired tags are a pretext for the stop, which is really about trying to see who is in the vehicle and what they’re up to. I am uncomfortable with these sorts of stops, as there is no individualized presumption of guilt. But the police would argue they are not disproportionately subjecting any particular group to this sort of (unsavory) treatment. And if the driver was driving illegally, perhaps a stop is warranted.

Is there evidence that traffic stops positively correlate to actually solving crimes?

I think this is the operative question. Even in the absence of racial bias, I think it’s important to understand if the practice has merit.

On the other hand, if the stops reduce the number of unregistered vehicles on the street, they’re not all bad.

dwk
dwk
2 months ago

Black people were 38% of the people murdered in Portland in 2021…
That should be the number that concerns people.

joan
2 months ago

Taylor, thanks so much for reporting on this. I see a lot of comments where people say or suggest that Black people and other people of color get pulled over more often for “other reasons,” like age or driving behavior. This is a very common thing in Portland, where people want to explain things that seem racist by suggesting it’s something else unrelated to race.

What’s quite interesting is that a recent study showed that racial disparities in police stops at night — when police can’t see the driver’s race — decrease dramatically. When police can’t see that a driver is Black and make decisions based on driver behavior and the car, police are much less likely to pull over a Black driver.

Racism is a systemic problem in policing. That’s incontrovertible.

dwk
dwk
2 months ago
Reply to  joan

With the majority of shooting and murders in the black gang population in Portland, what do you suggest police do?
38% of murders are black men with a population of 5% in Portland.
Serious question, my grandchildren are mixed race, I want them protected…

joan
2 months ago
Reply to  dwk

Protected from whom? Black people in Portland are at great risk any time the police get involved. The idea that police protect us is very much a white idea. That’s not the experience of many people of color. I would hope that your grandchildren are learning this from their parents, as my kids learned from me.

Dwk
Dwk
2 months ago
Reply to  joan

Protected from people shooting at them…
You are oK with 50 young black men a year being murdered in the city?
You are apparently lucky to live in the right neighborhood.
Unbelievable condescension towards crime victims.

Mark in NoPo
Mark in NoPo
2 months ago
Reply to  joan

The idea that police protect us is very much a white idea.

81% of black Americans want police to spend the same amount of time (or more) in their area, per Gallup. To insist otherwise is an act of supreme condescension.

Watts
Watts
2 months ago
Reply to  Mark in NoPo

Who would have guessed that when you get right down to it, most people want the same things, regardless of race?

We are all stronger when we work together; don’t give in to those who would divide us.

dwk
dwk
2 months ago
Reply to  joan

You project a lot… How do you know who the black parent or grand parent is? You have no idea what my race is.

Michael
Michael
2 months ago

As The War On Cars explored in their episode, The Automotive Police State, many of these issues were created or exacerbated by giving armed police jurisdiction over traffic enforcement. If PPB is so overworked and seemingly unable to stop discriminating, we should remove traffic enforcement from their duties entirely, and get them back to investigating real crimes with real evidence.

Mark in NoPo
Mark in NoPo
2 months ago
Reply to  Michael

we should remove traffic enforcement from their duties entirely…

The above data shows that we’re well on our way down that path. How would you say that’s going for us?