The Portland Police Bureau is shifting its traffic enforcement policy to focus primarily on moving violations that pose an immediate danger to public safety, according to Mayor Ted Wheeler and Police Chief Chuck Lovell.

That change is designed to reduce racial disparities in who gets policed.

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“Police officers will continue to use probable cause to stop dangerous drivers or to make stops pursuant to information related to specific investigations,” Wheeler said Tuesday. “Prioritizing immediate safety threats will allow our officers to focus on what’s truly important, keeping Portlanders safe.”

A police officer shines a flashlight as she searches inside a car.

A file photo of Officer Ray Kerridge searching a vehicle in Northeast Portland in 2018.

Jonathan Levinson / OPB

Wheeler cited data from recent years showing Black drivers are stopped at a disproportionate rate compared to white drivers

According to 2019 police bureau data, of the 33,035 vehicle stops Portland police made that year, 18% were for Black drivers and 65% were for white drivers. Meanwhile, white people make up 75.1% of the population, while Black people make up 5.8%.

The discrepancy is even greater for non-moving violation stops, a category for which, the report says, officers have more room for discretionary judgement. Black people accounted for 22.6% of those stops compared to 62% for white people.

“We have a lot more work to do, but these changes constitute significant progress in our work to reimagine our public safety system for the better,” Wheeler said.

Lovell emphasized that stops for non-moving violations are still allowed under the policy change, but the emphasis should be on safety. He also said the bureau’s slimmed down staffing factored into the new traffic stop priorities.

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“We’ve been listening to the community, watching legislative efforts, and managing our resources as best as possible. And this seems like a sensible time to make this shift,” Lovell said.

So far in 2021, 28 people have died in traffic accidents, more than double the number who had died at this time last year.

In addition to the new guidance on traffic stops, Wheeler and Lovell announced upcoming changes to bureau directives on consent searches. Officers will be required to inform drivers of their right to refuse a search, as well as their right to revoke consent at any time. Officers will record that consent on their phones and hand out cards informing people of their rights.

“It helps, if these cases come to court, it demonstrates that the involved person did in fact consent,” Lovell said. “A lot of places do this with body cameras, but we’re not in that position. So, this is kind of where we landed as far as our approach to consent searches.”

Wheeler pointed to other cities such as Oakland, California, where a similar change to traffic stop priorities cut the number of stops in the city by more than half.

“The decrease was even larger in the percentage of Black drivers that were stopped over the same time period,” Wheeler said.

While the city plans to review data to determine how this new policy is impacting disparities and to ensure it is having the desired outcome, Lovell stressed that this is one thing the bureau is trying among many to address policing inequities in the city.

“I don’t want to over-promise the results on the disparities piece, because I’m not sure what those will be,” Lovell said. “Some of the areas where they’ve tried this, they have a very different demographic than Portland does. I think what’s important here is that we’re willing to try this, we’re willing to ask officers to do this, and we’ll look at the data and see if it’s having an impact on safety.”

Lovell said the bureau has made substantial changes over the past 10 years under the DOJ settlement agreement, and that they are still looking for ways to address public demands for equity and public safety.

Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, an outspoken critic of the police bureau and of the mayor’s management of the city’s police, offered her support for the new policy.

“Historically, across the nation and here in Portland, traffic stops have led to unjustified police violence,” Hardesty wrote in a statement, noting that people of color are disproportionately at risk of being killed during traffic stops. “Even less-violent encounters have contributed to a feeling of being profiled and thus losing trust in law enforcement — feelings supported by the data.”

She called Tuesday’s announcement a “significant change that will advance the cause of racial justice in policing.”

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