Portland City Council unanimously voted Wednesday to crack down on street racing, beefing up penalties for those who shut down intersections and roadways and speed around city streets.
The ordinance will create two new misdemeanor crimes with which to charge street racers: “unlawful street takeover” and “unlawful staging of street takeover events.” Potential penalties include towed cars, a fine of up to $500, and jail time. If it’s a first offense, the driver could instead take part in a diversion program approved by the district attorney.
The ordinance, introduced by Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, passed 4-0. Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty is on vacation throughout August and was not present for the vote.
Like many U.S. cities, Portland has seen a rise in speed racing during the pandemic with commuters off the roads. Weekend events in areas of North Portland have drawn hundreds of spectators to blocked off intersections.
They have also frustrated local businesses, who say the reckless driving endangers their employees, particularly those that work the night-shift. As Willamette Week reported in April, a group of businesses under the name North Portland Coalition for Safe Streets have repeatedly implored the city to crack down on the events. The president of Vulcrum Logistics, a warehousing company off North Marine Drive, told the council Wednesday that participants had drawn a quarter-mile drag strip in front of the facility. A general manager of Ajinomoto Foods North America, also off North Marine Drive, said the frozen food company had spent $120,000 to build a fence to stop the racers from using their driveways.
Alonzo Plater, vice president of global distribution at Columbia Sportswear, said the company occasionally has to shut down until the drivers head home.
“We’ve got employees, much like others, that are refusing to come to work, especially at night when we know the conditions are going to be right for racing,” Plater said. “And then we also have, in a number of occasions, employees who feel they’re trapped at work because it’s too dangerous to get back out on Marine [Drive].”
Michael Roberts, a Portland police sergeant at North Precinct, said the bureau had tasked him in October with finding a way for the police force to better respond to street racing. He said he’d come to the conclusion that part of the problem lay with lack of enforcement tools available to police. He said Portland was one of the only cities on the I-5 corridor that did not have a specific charge related to street racing.
The thorny question of how creating new punishments for street racing, which often draws large crowds of Portlanders of color, may clash with the city’s stated goals of avoiding policies that deepen inequities within Black and Brown communities was left mostly undiscussed by the council and testifiers.
Commissioner Carmen Rubio briefly mentioned the contradiction before voting in favor of the rule. She said she felt the dangers presented by street racing were urgent and these questions could be addressed at a later date.
“It does raise some questions for the longer term,” she said. “If our goal is to lower the impact of mass incarceration, it raises the need for further conversation about how our system can move toward and engage in restorative justice practices and exploring alternatives to punitive consequences.”
Mayor Wheeler said he’d heard concerns this week from fellow council members over some of the harsher penalties included in the original version of the ordinance, which proposed up to six months of jail time. The council voted Wednesday to tweak the ordinance and reduce the maximum jail time to 30 days.
While there are already laws that could address street racing, Sam Adams, senior advisor to the mayor, said law enforcement needed a new, stronger set of tools to curb it.
Under Oregon law, speed racing is a traffic violation and comes with a fine of $435. Both reckless driving and recklessly endangering another person are misdemeanor crimes, and they come with a penalty of up to one year jail time and a fine of as much as $6,250, according to the city’s website.
Adams said the mayor’s administration felt the existing charges were insufficient to provide a deterrent to the risky events in which one wrong turn could have deadly consequences for both drivers and their audience. Video from an event on Northeast Columbia Boulevard this summer shows a car spinning wildly around a crowd huddled in the middle of the intersection.
“When you watch the video and they’re spinning around in a circle with the front end of the car — the wrong flick of the wrist or the elbow and they’re plowing into ... sometimes hundreds of spectators,” Adams said.
The ordinance cites four street takeover events from May 2019 to November 2020 in which drivers blocked traffic and sped through intersections. Police also say a motorcyclist killed in Portland this April may have been street racing at the time.
But whether law enforcement will use these news tools is an open question. Police have repeatedly said they’re stretched too thin to respond to all the crimes occurring in the city at a given moment.
Police did not immediately provide information on whether police had responded to the four street racing events detailed in the ordinance.
Portland’s Deputy Police Chief Chris Davis told the council there had been five traffic fatalities related to street racing since July of last year — events he felt the police force, historically, has struggled to respond to. He said people often speed off when the police approach, and the officers generally feel it’s too high risk to pursue the drivers.
“We have been able to direct some resources at the problem and take off a few people at the margins,” he said. “But really we believe this ordinance gives us a really important tool to deal with not only people engaged in the dangerous driving activity but people who are legitimately facilitating the event.”
The ordinance defines “unlawful street takeover event” as an unpermitted activity that involves people “demonstrating, exhibiting, or comparing the maneuverability or power of one or more motor vehicles.” The ordinance defines an “unlawful staging of a street takeover event” as a person knowingly using a motor vehicle or other obstacle to create a barrier to impede a public place to create a location for “an unlawful street takeover event.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article misstated the length of jail time proposed in the original ordinance.