The Portland, Oregon, Police Bureau (PPB) has announced the partial reinstatement of its Traffic Division after the unit was disbanded in 2020 due to budget constraints and staffing issues, with the city also considering adding speed cameras to the mix.
The decision to bring back the division comes in response to the alarming rise in traffic crash fatalities in Portland over the past two years.
According to PPB Chief Chuck Lovell, the team will consist of 14 officers who will be assigned to high-crash areas.
“[We have] heard from our community that they want and expect traffic enforcement to help keep our roadways safe for all users,” Lovell said regarding the decision.
However, transportation safety advocates argued that relying solely on police officers for traffic enforcementmay not be the most effective approach. Rather, they advocate for the implementation of speed cameras, particularly at red lights and intersections, to slow down drivers and reduce racial bias in policing.
For example, Portland transportation advocacy nonprofit The Street Trust (TST) has actively pushed for increased automated traffic enforcement. The activists emphasized that automated systems, such as red-light cameras and intersection cameras, can help prevent disproportionate fines and surveillance, particularly for low-income communities, communities of color, immigrants and refugees.
In addition, the activists argued that by utilizing automated enforcement methods, overburdened police officers can concentrate on other pressing issues, while potential biases in traffic enforcement can be minimized.
Automated traffic enforcement falls under the jurisdiction of the Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), with PBOT Commissioner Mingus Mapps and former Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty supporting these tactics.
While PBOT has faced challenges in deploying traffic cameras, it successfully installed the city’s first intersection safety camera in April 2022, with plans for additional red-light cameras later this year.
A recent state law allows city employees, not just police officers, to review traffic camera footage and streamline the utilization of automated enforcement by the City of Portland.
Both the PBOT and PPB recognized the value of using police officers and cameras in tandem for traffic enforcement. According to PBOT spokesperson Dylan Rivera, both aspects of traffic enforcement are necessary for effective policing.
“Cameras mounted in a position provide 24-hour coverage of a location that human enforcement can’t match. The consistency and static nature of our cameras program means they can, over time, change the way people drive in an area because regular travelers on that corridor learn to expect the camera enforcement to be there, and they reduce their speed accordingly,” Rivera told the Portland Mercury. “Human enforcement has the advantage of being more mobile. Officers can enforce on one street one day, and another location the next. That can help keep drivers on their toes: If you’re not certain where enforcement will be from one day to the next, perhaps you make a habit of slowing down as you travel throughout the city.”
Meanwhile, PPB Public Information Officer Sergeant Kevin Allen said that while the cameras are a “good tool in the toolbox to reduce dangerous driving behavior,” ultimately police officers are necessary to make the stop. “A traffic camera would never be able to identify, stop, evaluate and arrest an impaired driver,” he noted.
Efforts to reduce traffic stops for minor violations had been underway in Portland even before the disbanding of the Traffic Division in 2020. These measures aimed to prevent the disproportionate targeting of drivers of color for minor infractions such as broken tail lights or expired registration.
Oregon Senate Bill 1510, passed in 2022, further prohibited police from stopping drivers for certain low-level traffic violations.