PORTLAND, Ore. — The streets outside Portland's Lloyd Center became host to an alarming sight Saturday night: streets blocked with cars doing donuts, burnouts and other stunts, all while hundreds of people stood around and watched. Some spectators were dangerously close to the action, taunting the drivers on.
Videos from the event Saturday night were easy to find on Snapchat's "Snap Map" feature.
Illegal sideshows like this can be incredibly dangerous — and not just to the people directly involved. In August of last year, a 26-year-old woman was hit and killed by a street racer while waiting for a bus in Southeast Portland. Just a few days after that, a 20-year-old man died after being shot during a street takeover on Marine Drive. And in October, a Vancouver grandfather out driving for Doordash was killed in a crash that investigators believe involved street racers.
"I just get so angry at the situation, I just get a slow boil," said Claudia, who witnessed the street takeover Saturday night.
Claudia lives near the intersection of Northeast 13th and Multnomah, not far from the Lloyd Center. Claudia said she has witnessed more than a half dozen of these since she moved into her Northeast Portland condo 15 years ago.
"You can see smoke 'cause there's all kinds of smoke let off from the tires that are burning when they're chasing each other in circles," she added, sharing video she took.
It's visibly dangerous, but then there's the incessant noise of revving engines and squealing tires.
"To me it's a situation that warrants police action," Claudia said. "I think that it's not good, I think that the police should respond. It's a volatile situation."
Where were the police?
In a lengthy statement, Lt. Nathan Sheppard with the Portland Police Bureau cited a number of reasons for the agency's lack of response to street takeovers like these.
Because of the sheer number of people and vehicles involved, Sheppard said — with attendees sometimes numbering in the hundreds — a large and coordinated response from police is required to safely break them up.
"Historically, these groups are unfriendly towards law-enforcement, which is exacerbated by the fact that during these events they are actively breaking the law," Sheppard said. "We’ve also found that it’s not uncommon for individuals to also be armed with firearms."
Sheppard also said that these are, by definition, "crowd control" events. He blamed recent legislation, like 2021's Oregon House Bill 2928, for making police reticent to respond.
HB 2928 restricted law enforcement from using chemical agents like tear gas except in events that legally constitute a riot and an officer reasonably believes it "is necessary to terminate and prevent furtherance of the riotous behavior." It also barred police from intentionally targeting the heads of rioters with less-lethal crowd control munitions in most circumstances, plus a few other restrictions.
"What really frustrates me is the impact these events have on the community," Sheppard said. "I’ve heard stories of people being stuck for hours on bridges, or emergency transport vehicles such as AMR having to re-route. Whether you’ve got to get home to pick up your kids from the sitter, or have to get to work, the anger and frustration is going to be there. And if you’re in a rush to get to the hospital, it can be way more than just an annoyance."
On Saturday night, Sheppard said, PPB's Central Precinct had 14 officers on duty, when a complement of 17 officers is supposed to be the agency's minimum for effectively answering 911 calls. He said that officers were already responding to range of serious calls, with 10 more calls holding for a police response, when the street racing calls came in.
"These are very important calls that officers can’t just abandon," Sheppard continued. "Our officers are determined to give the community members they interact with the high level of service they deserve."
Though PPB has hired almost 100 new officers over the past year, many of those officers are still awaiting basic training at the state police academy, which is followed by more training at the city level and in the field. Even when officers are able to get straight into basic training, Sheppard said, they aren't fully trained and able to work on their own for 18 months.
On the legislative side, state lawmakers proposed a bill last month to make laws tougher for the people who organize street races and takeover events. There's a work session scheduled for Tuesday on the bill.
Claudia has written to state senators, demanding action against street racing.
"If a stronger law could be enforced more consistently then yeah, let's do that," she said.