Rep. Nelson took to Twitter after being pulled over the second time. He admitted to driving over the limit in one instance, but is still worried race played a role.
SALEM, Ore. — After being pulled over on his way back from Salem for the second time in a week, freshman state Rep. Travis Nelson of Portland took to Twitter with his exasperation.
“It’s the first day of Black History Month, and I’m getting pulled over — again. The second time in a week,” Nelson said in a brief video attached to his post.
While Nelson said that he doesn’t know that he was pulled over due to racial profiling and wants to give the officers the benefit of the doubt, he acknowledged that being a Black man in Oregon can make it easy to stand out.
“I think we should be honest — when you’re Black, in a lot of spaces and a lot of areas, you become suspicious by default,” he said. “And I think most Black people who live in Oregon either know that or have experienced it at some point.”
Nelson said that he was pulled over on Monday, then again on Wednesday. Both stops involved troopers from Oregon State Police.
“Both the officers were nice to me, we had pleasant interactions — there was nothing bad that happened to me as a result of these stops,” Nelson told KGW’s Bryant Clerkley in an interview. “Yet I was stopped, and I’ve been stopped 40-plus times, probably 50-plus times at this point. And while I don’t know that my race was the reason that they pulled me over, I do believe the unconscious bias is real, and I believe there is a reason other than my driving habits when it comes to why police have chosen to stop me.”
On Monday, Nelson admitted that he was driving along I-5 with his cruise control set to 9 or 10 mph over the speed limit. When the trooper pulled him over, he said that Nelson was going 76 mph and had strayed from his lane. Nelson doesn’t recall weaving at all.
Two days later, Nelson was again traveling home from Salem along I-5. He had his phone in a hands-free holder while attending a virtual meeting, but took the phone down to rejoin the meeting when there were technical issues. That’s when he was pulled over for the second time.
Neither of the traffic stops resulted in a ticket, Nelson said. While he’s been pulled over many times — especially when he was younger — he said that he’s rarely cited. More likely, he thinks, is that he’s usually being checked to see if his car is stolen or if there are any warrants for his arrest.
A law passed in 2017 mandated that all Oregon law enforcement agencies submit information regarding the number of times officers conducted traffic and pedestrian stops so a state commission could analyze the data each year to track racial or ethnic disparities.
The most recent report in 2022 shows that Oregon State Police did not disproportionately stop drivers of color, but there were disparities in the citations issued for drivers of color.
In a 2021 report by the commission, out of 143 Oregon law enforcement agencies analyzed, Oregon State Police was the only one identified that had “significant” levels of disparities in citations, searches and arrests for Asian and Pacific Islanders, Black, Latino, Middle Eastern and Native American people. Recommendations were issued at the time to examine Oregon State Police in further detail.
Anecdotally, Nelson said that his white peers share that they’re much less likely to be pulled over, even if they’re committing minor traffic infractions.
“Most of us are not perfect drivers, right? On Monday, when I got stopped for speeding, doing 76 on I-5, there were other cars that were passing me,” Nelson said.
Regardless, Nelson said that he didn’t expect his tweet to garner as much attention as it did. It’s now been shared several hundred times. He expects that’s because he is a state lawmaker now, with a higher profile than he had before.
“I wanted to just get it out there. I’m pretty outspoken on Twitter, social media. I’ve spoken up a lot about racial discrimination and racial disparities in the last several years as part of my work prior to being in the legislature,” he said. “And it was just amazing to me that I get pulled over on Monday, on Tuesday I make the speech about Tyre (Nichols), and then on Wednesday — the first day of Black History Month — I get pulled over again. So I was just kind of like, ‘Really?'”
It was partly the absurdity of the experience, then, that inspired Nelson to tweet about it.
“I also wanted to speak out for all those people, all of those Black men who are getting harassed or deemed as suspicious or getting pulled over more than their white counterparts,” he said.
Nelson said that he’s been in contact with Oregon State Police and will be requesting the dash cam footage from the encounters.
Oregon State Police released a statement on Thursday in response to a request for comment:
“The Oregon State Police (OSP) is aware of concerns raised by Oregon State Representative Travis Nelson on social media following two separate traffic stops he was involved with earlier this week. OSP has spoken with Representative Nelson and heard his concerns regarding these stops and the potential for racial bias. 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.
“This week, two separate troopers stopped Representative Nelson for violations related to speed, lane use, and using an electronic device while driving. These incidents, and the associated videos, have been reviewed in detail. Both Representative Nelson and the involved Troopers were polite, professional, and courteous during these interactions. Enforcement of these violations is emphasized in OSP’s Fatal Five directive and are related to our efforts to increase traffic safety and reduce fatalities on our roadways. Representative Nelson was given warnings for all the violations and no citations were issued.
“It is important to us as a law enforcement agency to consider varying positionalities and our interactions within communities who have experienced marginalization and inequity.”
Nelson believes that there’s an opportunity here to work on mitigating racial bias in policing, conscious or unconscious. He doesn’t believe that his experiences with OSP’s troopers were motivated by any racial animus, but he does think that unconscious bias may have been involved.
He grew up in rural eastern Washington, and he said that he experienced many more incidents like this then, when he was young and before he moved to Portland. It’s something that he carries with him today.
“I can recall my parents and folks telling me, ‘Hey, you can’t go everywhere white people go. You can’t do everything white people do … You talk to police a certain way if you get stopped, otherwise bad things can happen to you,'” Nelson said. “If you’re a Black parent, your kids have to be pretty much perfect, otherwise they’re getting expelled from school, right? There’s a level of perfection that you have to have as a Black person in America if you’re going to achieve any level of success, and I was raised to understand that.”