Portland restores traffic division after fatal crashes rise to highest number in 30 years
Twenty-two officers have been moved into the traffic patrol division for one month to focus on impaired drivers and the deadliest city streets
By Catalina Gaitán
PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland Police Bureau is reinstating its traffic division on a limited basis after an over two-year hiatus, sending 22 officers out to high-crash areas of the city starting Thursday.
The officers will work daily from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m., when drunk or impaired drivers are most likely to be on the road, said Police Chief Chuck Lovell at a news conference Tuesday.
Lovell reassigned all non-investigative traffic personnel – a total of 20 officers – to general patrol duties in February 2021, citing budget constraints and lengthy wait times for 911 callers. Three months later, Lovell directed officers to turn their focus from minor traffic violations such as expired tags or broken headlights and instead prioritize safety violations in high-crash corridors.
Traffic stops plummeted by 44% from 2020 to 2021, while fatal crashes spiked from 54 to 63 – the highest number in 30 years. Another 63 people were killed in fatal crashes in 2022, according to data from the Portland Bureau of Transportation.
“I’ve waited just over two years for this day,” Lovell said, standing behind a podium outside the police bureau’s Penumbra Kelly building on East Burnside Street. Parked by the podium were a police motorcycle, a white traffic patrol trailer and a black patrol car – one of a fleet of 144 new cars the Portland Police Bureau purchased this year for over $10 million.
“Right now is the time where we can actually make this move and impact some of the driving behavior we’ve all witnessed in the city for the better,” Lovell said.
For the first month, a higher number of officers will be assigned to the traffic division – 15 motorcycle officers, five patrol cars and two sergeants – to help with upcoming Rose Festival events. After the first month, eight of those officers will go back to patrol, leaving 10 motorcycle officers, two patrol cars and two sergeants, Lovell said.
The officers will focus on dangerous driving happening in “high crash areas” of Portland, said Sgt. Ty Engstrom.
More than half of fatal crashes in 2022 occurred along Portland’s “High Crash Network,” the 30 busiest and deadlines streets and intersections, according to the Portland Bureau of Transportation. While those streets are only 8% of Portland streets, they accounted for 70% of fatal crashes in 2022, data shows.
The police bureau will evaluate how the traffic division is performing on a monthly basis, Engstrom said.
The decision to partially reinstate the traffic division was not made out of an “abundance or an excess” of officers, but to fill a need, Lovell said.
Ninety-seven trainees need to complete rotations in the traffic division to learn how to perform traffic stops and DUI and crash investigations, Engstrom said.
More traffic officers are also needed to deter dangerous driving and to help respond to deadly street racing events that have taken over city streets in recent years, Lovell said.
Law enforcement agencies banded together last weekend to crack down on two street racing events, arresting 10 people, towing six cars and doling out dozens of citations from between Friday and Sunday night.
In response to questions about racial disparities in traffic stops, Engstrom said it was important to police officers to not disproportionately stop people from certain groups or areas more than others.
“We are looking for dangerous driving behavior,” Engstrom said. “We don’t really preoccupy ourselves with who is behind the wheel, just the fact that they’re doing something that’s dangerous.”
Despite traffic stops dropping by 44% from 2020 to 2021, Black and Hispanic people had their highest share of stops on record that year, while the share of stops of white people reached record lows, according to data from the Portland Police Bureau.