Oregon Cities

Kotek directs Oregon state troopers to crack down on fentanyl distribution

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A lethal dose of fentanyl, in this image from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

A lethal dose of fentanyl, in this image from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Courtesy of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

Oregon State Police plan will send new resources to Portland in a bid to disrupt open air fentanyl dealing that has taken root downtown under a plan unveiled by Gov. Tina Kotek on Tuesday.

The so-called “strategic enforcement and disruptive initiative” will see state troopers teaming up with Portland police and engaging in high visibility shows of force, with troopers out in numbers along key highways. It comes as fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, continues to drive rising overdoses and alarming headlines in Oregon and around the country.

“We want to make it uncomfortable for people to be selling fentanyl in the central city,” Kotek said in a briefing with reporters Tuesday afternoon. “There will be more people watching, more detective work, more ability to see where things are getting sold and going after those folks.”

In this file photo from last April, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek addresses reporters to mark 100 days in office.

In this file photo from last April, Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek addresses reporters to mark 100 days in office.

Dirk VanderHart / OPB

Details on the new enforcement push are light. Kotek did not offer a definitive number of state police personnel that would be assigned to patrol Portland or go into details about strategy. Rather than “more uniforms on the street,” she said the extra police presence would be dedicated to tracking dealers and helping local police with prosecutions.

The governor unveiled the initiative during the second full meeting of a task force she convened in August to address the woes of Portland’s central city. Those meetings are held in private.

“This announcement says something important about our Governor: she is impatient about the right things,” Dan McMillan, CEO of the insurance company The Standard and a co-chair of the task force, said in a statement.

Four pieces of the new strategy highlighted in Kotek’s announcement were:

  • reallocating OSP staff to local drug enforcement teams
  • hosting “saturation patrols” with other agencies, with an emphasis on stopping fentanyl trafficking
  • teaming up with the Oregon Department of Justice to train local police agencies on how to “avoid unlawful searches and address potential biases” when doing similar patrols
  • using OSP’s “High Visibility Enforcement Unit,” an effort to crack down on people driving while high or drunk.

Oregon State Police have fewer than 500 troopers to patrol the entire state, and have long complained about dozens of vacant positions that have made it impossible to get the agency up to full staffing. But as Kotek has turned her attention to downtown Portland, the law enforcement agency over which she holds direct sway has inevitably become part of the discussion.

Last month, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler offered a list of requests for state assistance that included assigning 96 state troopers to Portland, where they could bolster a Portland Police Bureau that frequently notes its own understaffing.

Kotek said she could not send nearly 100 troopers to the city, but suggested she was considering an increase.

“I am open to having some conversation about additional resources for the metro area or the central city,” she said. “Right now we’re not able to do that, but what we can do is bring these very targeted resources around enforcement and drug sales.”

Related: The reasons behind Oregon’s deepening drug crisis

Fentanyl is affecting Oregon’s largest city like nowhere else in the state. The rapid increase in people publicly using the drug led the Portland City Council to propose a new law that would allow police to crack down on such public use.

In this photo provided by the Oregon State Police, K-9 Titan is photographed next to drugs found by an OSP Trooper during a traffic stop, April 23, 2023. OSP confiscated 51 pounds of suspected methamphetamine, 31 pounds of suspected powder fentanyl, 9 pounds of suspected cocaine and 2 pounds of suspected heroin.

In this photo provided by the Oregon State Police, K-9 Titan is photographed next to drugs found by an OSP Trooper during a traffic stop, April 23, 2023. OSP confiscated 51 pounds of suspected methamphetamine, 31 pounds of suspected powder fentanyl, 9 pounds of suspected cocaine and 2 pounds of suspected heroin.

Courtesy of Oregon State Police

Following the passage of Measure 110, possession of small amounts of fentanyl is punishable with a ticket that can be easily ignored — though dealing the drug remains a crime. A wrinkle in state law stops Portland and other cities from levying consequences for public drug use.

In order for Portland’s new ordinance to have teeth, lawmakers will first need to allow it under state law. Kotek’s office said Tuesday that the governor will work to make that happen. “The Governor has made her position clear that public consumption of controlled substances is a problem that needs to be urgently addressed in this upcoming legislative session,” the office said in a press release. “She commends Mayor Ted Wheeler and the Portland City Council for their partnership in this effort in passing an emergency ordinance in recent weeks.”

Meanwhile, at least one city official is pushing for additional action. Commissioner Rene Gonzalez said Monday he will call for the city of Portland and Multnomah County to declare a public health emergency over addiction and drug use.

Gonzalez was reacting to news that a 15-month-old child apparently overdosed on fentanyl last week after putting foil that had been used to smoke the drug into her mouth. The baby was revived, and the drugs allegedly belonged to her parents.

Kotek and McMillan on Tuesday offered updates to other aspects of the central city task force. One of the group’s subcommittees will conduct focus groups to find out what improvements people want to see in downtown Portland, she said, and another will organize a cleanup of the downtown core before the holiday season.

One thing the task force has not much discussed, the governor said: Tackling retail crime. On Tuesday, Target announced it would close three of its stores in Portland — including one downtown — citing an uptick in theft.

“I am sorry to see stores like Target moving out of central city,” Kotek said. “But you know what? We’re going to create a place where people want to come back and have their businesses, so maybe they’ll come back. We’d like them back.”

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