In May 2015, two Portland police officers drove by the house of a known gang member.
They spotted a car they thought the man might be in, and they used minor traffic violations as a pretext to pull the car over.
The driver had failed to signal before a lane change and turn and had, according to the officers, obstructed the front windshield with an air freshener.
This incident is described as a typical stop by Portland's Gang Enforcement Team in a new investigation of the unit's work by Portland's city auditor.
The audit is the latest report to question whether policing tactics in some Portland neighborhoods lead to over-policing and racial profiling of African-Americans.
The audit reviewed the Gang Enforcement Team’s work in 2015 and 2016 through interviews, ride-alongs and data analysis.
Auditors found that the police team regularly uses minor traffic violations as a pretext to stop and search people.
These pretext traffic stops are legal in Oregon. And in individual cases, the audit notes, the tactic can pay off for the team.
In the example above, a gang member was a passenger in the car officers stopped for failing to signal. Officers found a loaded gun in the glove box, and the passenger eventually pleaded guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm.
But the audit questions whether, on the whole, the traffic stops are a just and effective strategy.
The Gang Enforcement Team disproportionately stops African-Americans, and it lacks the data to show how frequently it pulls over actual gang members versus how often it unnecessarily stops other drivers.
“Without data to answer these questions, the Bureau can neither prove that its Gang Enforcement patrols are effective nor explain to the community what it is doing,” auditors wrote.
In one example, while auditors were observing police in November 2016, officers pulled over a car they believed was connected to gang violence.
The people inside the car were tourists.
Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler oversees the Police Bureau. In a letter responding to the audit, he praised the Gang Enforcement Team for its “relationship-based work,” and promised more scrutiny over their stop practices and data collection.
“The audit correctly notes that it is difficult to demonstrate to the community that the GET is not engaging in racial profiling if there is inadequate data collection and analysis of stops,” he wrote.
Portland Police Chief Danielle Outlaw will speak about the audit on OPB's "Think Out Loud" Wednesday, along with Portland Auditor Mary Hull Caballero and Urban League of Portland President and CEO Nkenge Harmon-Johnson.
The city’s Gang Enforcement Team is a specialty unit made up of approximately 28 sworn members as of December 2016, according to the audit.
Since 2001, the Portland Police Bureau has required officers to collect demographic data on the people they stop to help identify and correct patterns of racial profiling.
But the audit found that the bureau hadn’t recently analyzed the Gang Enforcement Team’s stop data to look for possible racial bias, despite red flags.
The team reported 1,300 encounters in 2016, including approximately 800 traffic stops and 500 interactions officers classified as less serious “conversations.” The Police Bureau has demographic data for the 800 traffic stops. Fifty-nine percent of these traffic stops were of African-Americans.
The audit compared the rate at which African-Americans were being stopped — that 59 percent figure — to benchmarks the Police Bureau itself has set to look for racial disparities in policing, for example, the percentage of African-American drivers in Portland.
It found that the Gang Enforcement Team stopped African-Americans at rates seven times higher than there were African-American drivers, and three times higher than there were African-American crime victims.
“Officers recognized that their stops largely affected African American people. To justify these disparities, officers said that criminal gangs affected African American communities and that they were protecting African American communities. Officers also said most gang shooting victims were African American,” auditors wrote.
But auditors found that the team doesn’t collect enough data to show whether or not it was effectively targeting suspected gang members.
Officers only documented the reasons they pulled someone over or stopped them in cases that triggered them to write a police report to document an arrest, the use of force or confiscated property.
Those cases amounted to just 10 percent of the 1,300 traffic stops and conversations reported by the team.
Auditors said, in some cases, gang enforcement officers targeted specific individuals and criminal suspects, but also had broad authority to pull people over.
“We observed officers using the appearance of the car, the driver’s behavior, the location, and other factors in their decision-making,” auditors wrote.
Without documenting their investigative reasons for pulling people over, the Gang Enforcement Team couldn’t explain the racial disparities in their stops. They also couldn’t show that they were targeting specific individuals or criminals and not African-Americans as a group.
“If police can explain their investigative reason for most interactions, it could show that Gang Enforcement officers were targeting people potentially involved in crime, and that race was not the sole reason for the stop,” the auditors wrote.
Gaps In Data
The audit also questions whether officers on the Gang Enforcement Team have been accurately reporting all of their traffic and pedestrian stops.
The Police Bureau did not have complete data for the Gang Enforcement Team’s 1,300 encounters from 2016. Officers only recorded demographic information for about 800 encounters that were classified as stops.
The other 500 encounters were classified by officers as “mere conversations.”
In a “conversation,” unlike a stop, a person is free to leave at any time.
Officers aren’t required to collect data or demographic information on conversations that they have.
The approximately 500 “mere conversations” the gang enforcement team reported were generally captured by the police data system when a dispatcher started documenting a stop after an officer called in their location.
“We know of these 500 mere conversations because there was some action by officers and dispatch that started the data collection, and then officers canceled the stop data collection,” said Minh Dan Vuong, a senior auditor who worked on the report.
The audit noted that Gang Enforcement Team officers are much more likely to classify their encounters as “mere conversations” than precinct officers.
The audit found evidence to suggest that some “mere conversations” recorded by the team might have in fact been more serious traffic stops.
It found 32 encounters in 2016 in which Gang Enforcement officers told dispatchers they’d arrested someone but recorded the interaction as a “mere conversation.” In more than 400 encounters coded as “conversations,” Gang Enforcement officers told dispatchers they’d issued a warning.
In a letter responding to the audit, the Police Bureau disagreed with the audit’s interpretation of the conflicting dispatch and officer records around “mere conversations.”
The Police Bureau suggested that dispatchers were incorrectly reporting interactions as stops, and that officers were clarifying that they hadn’t detained anyone.
“PPB training currently establishes guidelines for officers to determine when a contact becomes a legally defined stop, versus a consensual encounter or conversation,” bureau officials wrote.
The Police Bureau also noted that the nature of the Gang Enforcement Team’s work meant they were expected to engage in more conversations than precinct officers.
Police Chief Danielle Outlaw responded to the audit with a letter.
“During the past year, and as a result of this audit, we have made changes to our policies and procedures,” she wrote. “However, there is still room for enhancements and I agree with the recommendations outlined within this report.”
The Police Bureau said, going forward, it will include an analysis of the Gang Enforcement Team’s data in its annual report on the demographics of police stops.
It also committed to develop a policy to require Gang Enforcement Team officers to document their reasons for making traffic stops as part of a review that will take place by June 29.
The auditor also published a second report on the Gang Enforcement Team’s gang crime investigations.
Last year, in response to advocacy from community members, reporting by The Oregonian/OregonLive and the auditor's ongoing review of the Gang Enforcement Team, the Police Bureau announced it was ending the practice of designating people as gang members and purging its documents related to gang designations.