Black Oregon lawmaker reflects on unconscious bias after being pulled over twice in one week

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
Feb. 9, 2023 8:51 p.m.
Democratic Rep. Travis Nelson says last week, he was pulled over twice by police in Oregon.

Democratic Rep. Travis Nelson says last week, he was pulled over twice by police in Oregon.

Andie Petkus/courtesy of Office of Travis E. Nelson

Democratic state Rep. Travis Nelson of Portland says he’s been pulled over by police at least 40 times since he started driving. Last week, the representative was pulled over twice in a span of three days, an occurrence he believes doesn’t happen to most of his white colleagues and staff.


Nelson said he was going 11 miles over the speed limit during the first stop, and he was holding his cell phone while taking a call during the second.

The stops happened the same week Nelson gave a speech about Tyre Nichols, a 29- year-old Black man who died after being beaten by a group of Memphis police officers.

Nelson spoke with “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller about his experiences and concerns over unconscious bias in policing.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Dave Miller: Can you describe what happened the first time you were pulled over last week?

Nelson: Yeah, I was pulled over last Monday. When the officer pulled me over, he said that I was going 76 on I-5 North, leaving Salem headed towards Portland. I don’t know if you’ve ever driven that stretch of highway, but most people are doing at least 75 in my experience on that stretch of road. He also said that I was veering from my lane which I dispute.

Miller: He let you off with a warning. And then two days later you were pulled over for a second time. What was happening at that point?

Nelson: Yeah, that was interesting because that came on the heels of a floor speech I gave in the House of Representatives about Tyre Nichols. That happened on Tuesday and then on Wednesday I was pulled over again. I was connecting to a zoom call as I was leaving the Capital. I was participating audio only, I got disconnected and was reconnecting and that’s when the officer pulled up beside my car, looked into my vehicle, saw me, saw that I had my phone in my hand, he then fell behind me and he then pulled me over after that.

Miller: I noted that you have said over the last week that you actually can’t even count the number of times that you have been pulled over since you started driving 25 or so years ago. But it’s at least 40 times, maybe 50 times. At this point, what goes through your mind when you see flashing lights behind you?

Nelson: You know I think of what my parents and family have taught me over the years about interacting with the police. I know there’s video out there of the stops. You’re told to be calm, be respectful, say yes sir and no sir. And I think the same thing goes through my mind that goes through a lot of other African Americans’ minds. You know if I do not behave perfectly, this could end up really bad really quickly. And so that’s something I always think about.


Related: OSP trooper accused of racial discrimination in Rogue Valley in class-action lawsuit

Miller: One thing I was struck by, is that in the video of the first stop that I watched, you didn’t mention that you were a lawmaker until after the officer came back. He’d run your license and registration came back and said I’m just going to give you a warning. Please don’t speed. And it was at that point that you said, can I tell you about my day and you told him that you were a lawmaker. I can imagine other lawmakers saying as soon as they were pulled over, “Hey officer, just so you know, I’m a state lawmaker.” Why didn’t you do that?

Nelson: Well, I didn’t want that to have any impact on the decision that the officer made, right? That was before I knew there was gonna be a second stop. That was before I made my floor speech on Tyre Nichols and you know, I just wanted to just get out of that stop, even though I had a pretty tough day, given everything we’ve heard just a couple of hours earlier on opioids.

Miller: What have you heard from fellow white lawmakers about your experiences?

Nelson: You know, most of them have been pretty supportive and that goes across the aisle too. I’ve had both my fellow Democrats and Republicans come up to me and and talk to me about their experiences and just tell me, you know how awful they feel about what I’ve been going through. You know almost all of them have told me that they’ve only been pulled over once, twice, maybe three or four times in their entire life. Off the record, almost everybody who has talked to me has told me that they speed on I-5. I’m not going to name any names or that they’ve you know connected to an audio only conference call while they’re driving as well. So it’s been real interesting to hear that none of my fellow legislators have been stopped more than 40 times.

Miller: According to the most recent Criminal Justice Commission report, this is something now that’s required because of lawmakers, Black motorists were not stopped by Oregon State Police compared to white drivers in a disparate way for the last two years for which there is data. But, when they were stopped, they were more likely than white drivers, given the same circumstances, to be given citations. For Latinx drivers, again this is according to the most recent data available for the Oregon State Police, there were disparities in citations, searches and arrests. Are you now calling for more action at the state level?

Nelson: Well I’m asking questions, you know I want to be clear, with the officers that were involved in my stops, I’m not calling them racist. But I am concerned that there may be some racial bias and although the data as of late looks better, I am concerned as to how the actions of individual officers are being tracked. Like I said with that first stop I had said in interviews before the footage came out that I was not swerving and if you look at that first video, it’s, in my opinion, it’s not clear that I was swerving and I don’t believe the video shows that. Also with the second video, a lot of the feedback I’ve gotten has been from people who told me, well, the officer didn’t even see you. And it’s because the video picked up after the officer pulled up next to me, and looked into my vehicle, saw me, saw that I was holding my phone and fell back. And it was at the point in which he fell back, that was the point in which the video started. So I’ve got questions. I’m interested in seeing how some of the recent legislation has had an impact and talking to my fellow legislators about what to do next.

Miller: As I’m sure you know, we’ve seen record numbers of traffic fatalities in Portland and statewide in recent years, including pedestrians and cyclists. What do you think should happen when motorists of any race are found to be speeding or driving unsafely?

Nelson: Yeah, I mean, I think under the law, in many cases, officers have some discretion, I think, if a ticket is warranted. I will say that in my experience, most of the time I’ve been pulled over, I haven’t gotten a ticket and to be frank, I think a lot of times when you’re Black or brown and you’re pulled over, a lot of times you’re being checked for warrants, you’re being checked to make sure that you have a registration, you’re being checked to make sure that you have a good ID because when you are Black and brown, there is unconscious bias that is often at play and we know that just because of your skin color, with the way our society works, you’re often viewed as suspicious.

Miller: Unless I’m mistaken, the data that I was mentioning earlier, in terms of stops and what happens and disparities, that’s all at the organizational level. Would you be in favor of tracking individual officers’ pull over rates or what happens after officers start interacting with people they’ve pulled over?

Nelson: I’m always interested in collecting data and taking that data into consideration when we’re looking at how we can mitigate the impacts of things such as unconscious bias.

Rep. Travis Nelson spoke to “Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller. Click play to listen to the full conversation: