Portland police bring back traffic division with goal of deterring dangerous drivers

By Alex Zielinski (OPB)
May 9, 2023 10:20 p.m. Updated: May 10, 2023 4:38 p.m.

Bureau leaders gutted the division that focuses on traffic and safe driving two years ago.

The Portland Police Bureau is reinstating its traffic division, two years after an internal reorganization left the department with just one employee.

“It’s a day I’ve looked forward to,” Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell said at a Tuesday press conference.


Starting May 11, 14 people will be reassigned from general patrol duties to the traffic division, a department that traditionally investigates vehicle crashes and enforces traffic laws. The team will work afternoons only and be made up of 10 motorcycle officers, two officers in patrol cars and two sergeants. The group will primarily focus on deterring dangerous driving along high-crash areas.

Lovell gutted the traffic division during a staff shortage in February 2021, moving most of the 20-person team into vacant patrol officer positions. Only one person, Sgt. Ty Engstrom, has staffed the department since. According to the bureau, Engstrom has mostly focused on coordinating parades and overseeing state and federal traffic grants.

FILE: Portland Police write a suspected street racer a ticket during an enforcement mission in 2021.

FILE: Portland Police write a suspected street racer a ticket during an enforcement mission in 2021.

Portland Police

“These last two years have been pretty difficult for those of us with a huge passion for traffic enforcement and education,” Engstrom said Tuesday.

The officers returning to the traffic division have previously been working as patrol officers assigned to city precincts. Lovell said this reorganization is not a sign that the Police Bureau has “an abundance of officers.”

“This move is very important, but it will impact the precincts as well,” Lovell said. Those leaving precincts to fill traffic division positions won’t be immediately replaced.

Several factors influenced Lovell’s decision to re-staff the department. With a surge in police officers in training — the bureau currently has 97 trainees and 77 vacant positions — Lovell said he wants to guarantee all trainees get experience in the traffic division. He also noted that the city is seeing an increasing number of events returning to city streets following the COVID-19 pandemic, and wants to ensure there are enough officers trained to help with parades and street fairs.

“We’re always looking at how we can take this finite resource of officers and be impactful on many fronts,” Lovell said.

Lovell said the traffic division will temporarily grow to 22 members for the first month of operations, to help staff the Rose Festival.

Portland has experienced record levels of traffic fatalities in the years since Lovell emptied the traffic division. In 2021, 63 people died in traffic-related deaths in Portland — the highest number in at least three decades. Portland matched that count in 2022.


This record trend comes amid the city’s 10-year strategy to reduce all traffic deaths by 2025. Called Vision Zero, the 2016 transportation plan aimed to use public education, new road infrastructure and traffic enforcement to achieve this fast-approaching goal.

The city has made recent investments in strategies to slow traffic in high-crash areas, including posting slower speed limits, installing plastic speed bumps and adding traffic cameras. It’s also paid for new social media and signage campaigns to remind drivers to slow down. Yet the “enforcement” arm of the city’s Vision Zero plan has been lacking since 2020.

Portland City Commissioner Mingus Mapps, who oversees the Portland Bureau of Transportation, has called for the Police Bureau to reinstate the traffic division for months to curb the recent spike in traffic deaths. Mayor Ted Wheeler oversees the Police Bureau.

“I am grateful that the traffic division is returning,” Mapps said in an emailed statement. “We have had record traffic-related fatalities in the last three years, and I hope this helps the current trend of lowering the rate.”

The reinstated traffic division is an abbreviated version of its predecessor. The previous team of 20 officers working 24 hours a day will be replaced by a 14-person department working only in the late afternoons and evenings. The team will work between 5 p.m. and 3 a.m.

According to city data, 73% of traffic-related deaths in 2022 took place between dusk and dawn.

Engstrom said that the 2021 announcement that the traffic division was losing almost all of its staff “absolutely played a role” in a rise in reckless driving — from fatal crashes to illegal speed racing — over the past two years. He said the new team will prioritize their patrols on high-crash areas and on dangerous driving behaviors.

With added staff, Engstrom said, he’s hopeful the bureau will be able to better address the estimated 6,000 hit-and-runs reported in Portland each year. At the moment, it’s “very rare” for non-fatal hit-and-runs to advance past an initial investigation, and “very few” of those cases are cleared.

Sarah Iannarone, director of local transportation advocacy group The Street Trust, said she wants the bureau to prioritize clearing these kinds of cases.

“I want them to think about how additional capacity can be used toward solving crimes against street users,” Iannarone said Tuesday. She also called on the bureau to focus more on automated enforcement through traffic cameras rather than traffic stops, to guard against the Police Bureau’s historic trend of over-policing drivers of color.

Prior to its disbanding, officers assigned to the traffic division were responsible for 90% of all traffic-related citations in Portland. This role has attracted scrutiny in the past, as police data has shown that Portland officers disproportionately stop Black drivers. Of the 33,000 vehicle stops Portland police made in 2019, 18% were for Black drivers and 65% were for white drivers. At the same time, white people make up 75.1% of the city’s population, while Black people make up only 5.8%.

Yet these stops were not solely carried out by traffic division officers — in fact, general patrol officers pulled over more Portland drivers in 2019. While traffic officers focus on drivers breaking traffic laws and collisions, patrol officers largely use traffic stops as a way to stop people suspected of a crime and carry out criminal investigations unrelated to traffic issues.

Compared to traffic officers’ data, officers outside of the traffic division were more responsible for disproportionately stopping Black drivers in 2019. This data also found that Black drivers were twice as likely to have officers ask them to consent to a vehicle search than drivers of other racial groups. Traffic division officers conducted less than 1% of all vehicle searches in 2019, while patrol officers carried out more than 93% of searches.

In June 2021, the Police Bureau adjusted its traffic enforcement policy with the intent to reduce racial disparities in traffic stops. The change directed all officers to prioritize stopping drivers for traffic violations that pose an immediate threat to public safety over stopping people as part of an investigation unrelated to their driving. Lovell reiterated this priority Tuesday.

“We’re focused on driving behavior, not demographics,” Lovell said. “We’re always as an organization working to reduce disparities.”