Rep. Travis Nelson, a nurse and Democrat who represents north and northeast Portland, doesn’t dispute that Oregon State Police had cause to pull him over – he was speeding on Monday night and holding his phone on Wednesday night. Both times, police let him off with warnings.
But Nelson said he’s worried that the frequent stops – he estimates he’s been pulled over more than 40 times since he began driving 25 years ago – are a sign of biased policing.
“I’m not saying these cops were racist, right?” Nelson told the Capital Chronicle. “I’m not saying that they pulled me over saying ‘Hey, I’m gonna get that n-word.’ But I am concerned that there may have been some unconscious bias there, and I am concerned for other Black people who aren’t legislators, who aren’t nurses, who are getting stopped by police.”
The Capital Chronicle requested records from both incidents from Oregon State Police. Capt. Kyle Kennedy, who oversees government and media relations, said in an email that the agency was processing that request, and that videos showed that Nelson and the officers who stopped him were polite, professional and courteous.
“OSP has spoken with Representative Nelson and heard his concerns regarding these stops and the potential for racial bias,” Kennedy wrote. “We take any allegation of racial bias seriously and are committed to eradicating racism from our profession and we seek to understand how our enforcement efforts impact the communities we serve.”
On Monday, Nelson said he received a warning from state troopers for driving 11 miles over the speed limit and not staying in his lane. He thinks he had his cruise control set at 9 or 10 miles above the 65 mph limit – still illegal, but within the bounds of normal traffic and slower than other cars that passed him that night – and that he stayed in his lane. He’s waiting to see footage from Oregon State Police to see if he was right.
On Tuesday, Nelson spoke on the House floor about Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man brutally beaten to death by police officers in Memphis, Tennessee, after a traffic stop earlier this month, and the need for police accountability. In a prepared speech that another representative finished reading for him because of time limits on floor speeches, Nelson said that he mourned for Nichols, and he knew that Nichols could have been him.
And then, as Nelson drove home from the Capitol on Wednesday night, he was trying to reconnect to a Zoom call on his phone when he once again saw flashing police lights behind him. Exhausted, he started speaking into his cell phone camera as other cars zipped past him.
“It’s the first day of Black History Month, and I’m getting pulled over. Again. Second time in a week,” he said.
My 2nd time this week getting pulled over while leaving Salem. Both times the officers ran my plates, checked me for warrants and then let me go without giving me a ticket.
If I had an outstanding warrant, I’d be in jail.
— Rep. Travis E. Nelson (@IamTravisNelson) February 2, 2023
He tweeted the video of the stop, adding that officers ran his plates, checked whether there were any warrants in his name and let him go without a ticket. The tweet, which had been viewed nearly 137,000 times by Thursday afternoon, reached a much larger audience than his normal posts.
Nelson, 45, estimates that he’s been pulled over about two or three times a year since he started driving. Oregon court records show only one ticket, issued by Portland Police in 2020 for using a handheld phone while driving.
After he tweeted, he said he heard privately and publicly from many people, both white and Black. Most Black people he heard from had had similar experiences, while many white people told him about how they speed or use their phones and are rarely pulled over.
Most of the time, the stops are cordial, Nelson said. He hasn’t had physical encounters with police officers other than one incident in his youth when he was thrown against a police car. Once officers see that he’s not a threat and doesn’t have a criminal record, they send him off with a warning, he said.
“If I did have warrants, or a criminal record, I could potentially be in jail, and that’s how a lot of Black men get caught up in the system,” he said. “And once you’re in the system, it’s hard to get out, and it’s harder for Black people to get out than it is for Caucasian people.”
The state constitution protects lawmakers from arrest during the legislative session.
Nelson said he’ll be more careful while driving, and he doesn’t intend to violate any laws. But he added that part of his concern is that Black people are held to higher standards than white people.
“I do think it’s a shame that in order for me to be assured that I’m not going to be stopped I’ve got to be more perfect than what most of my white peers and counterparts described to me,” he said.
Along with messages of support, Nelson’s tweet sparked numerous responses from people asking what he did wrong to warrant the stops. He said he intentionally didn’t respond, thinking of the reactions from some people each time a Black person is killed by police.
“Trayvon Martin was supposedly doing something wrong. Eric Garner was doing something wrong, Breonna Taylor was caught up in something wrong, George Floyd was doing something wrong, and that doing something wrong or that violation led to them losing their lives,” he said. “So I didn’t feel that it really mattered. Again, in talking to my white colleagues, they do things that are wrong and never have any problems.”
A December 2021 analysis from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission found that Oregon State Police disproportionately stopped and cited people of color. The commission’s December 2022 report found no statistically significant disparities in stop rates for people of color and white people, but the commission urged all law enforcement agencies to scrutinize their results.
Oregon lawmakers last year passed a law prohibiting police from pulling over drivers solely for a broken or burned-out headlight, tail light or brake light unless the nonworking lights could prevent them from traveling safely. Sen. Lew Frederick, a Portland Democrat who is Black, said at the time that he was pulled over at least once a year in his own neighborhood for small issues like a burned-out bulb or driving too slowly when he was preparing to park.
“The harassment that every Black man that I know has dealt with over the years is not because people have started necessarily coming out immediately with guns, but (because) they have been pulled over for very small offenses,” Frederick said. “Officially a tail light, a license plate light, a headlight.”
Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.