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‘Fentanyl nexus’: Portland police’s bike squad faces ‘explosion’ of open-air drug use

As Portland reckons with an "explosion" of open-air drug use, Fox News rode along with the police bureau's bike squad. Here's what we saw in the City of Roses.

Wheels squeal as officer David Baer wrenches his bike to the right and jumps it onto the sidewalk next to a Subaru. In one swift movement, he slides a portable spike strip behind the front tires and raps on the window.

Then he takes a plastic bag of suspected fentanyl from the man in the driver's seat.

"Let me get you a hundred dollar ticket. You'll be out of here in a second," Baer tells the driver before walking back to his bicycle.

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Public drinking was the main infraction Baer encountered when he joined the Portland Police Bureau's bike squad four years ago. But since Oregon voters decriminalized personal-use amounts of all drugs in 2020, he said there has been an "explosion" in open-air drug use.

"All roads in downtown lead to fentanyl," Baer told Fox News. "Whether that's stolen cars, whether that's burglaries or thefts or organized retail theft, there's almost always a fentanyl nexus. So we spend a lot of our time currently policing fentanyl and trying to stop that flow."

The Subaru driver's friend chats amicably with Baer as he writes a $100 ticket for drug possession. Baer warns her that, if they see him driving her car without a license, they'll tow it.

"If I can see fentanyl from the sidewalk, it's a problem," Baer says. 

"I get it, I get it," she responds.

"Okay. Just so you know."

Then he gives the man his ticket and tells him to call the number on it if he wants treatment — or just doesn't want to have to pay the fine.

"I'm seizing your drugs as evidence," he says. "Have a great day."

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Throughout the afternoon, the squad arrests a couple of people with outstanding warrants. But mostly they see if anyone needs Narcan and write tickets to those caught with illegal drugs.

"We interact a lot with people we know on a first name basis, both from previous arrests and just from previous incidents," Baer told Fox News. "There's a guy who I Narcan who I used to drive home when he got too drunk at the bars to his mom's house because he would cause problems … now he does fentanyl in the street."

The four-person team arrested 45 suspected drug dealers and wrote 510 citations for drug possession between January and mid-August of this year, according to data provided by Baer.

"It's almost strange sometimes where you're like, I'm ticketing somebody for smoking fentanyl on the sidewalk and it feels like I'm giving — because I essentially am giving — them a traffic ticket," he said. "But at the end of the day, this is the current law as it stands in Oregon."

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Officers respond to a shouting match over shoes, finding both women standing amid tents and piles of luggage under a bridge. Baer prods a man slumped over on an overturned bucket, asking repeatedly if he's okay before getting a response from one of the people sitting on the sidewalk nearby. A chain link fence separating the camp from the adjacent building is garnished with shirts and pants, like a makeshift clothesline.

"To see this happen in the city is just absolutely crushing," said Sgt. Jerry Cioeta, a Portland native who has worked as a cop in the city for 25 years.

Homelessness and drug overdose deaths have skyrocketed in recent years. Critics blame much of the problem on permissive laws, and both the city and state have made small reversals.

Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek recently signed a bill making possession of more than 1 gram of fentanyl a misdemeanor. The Portland City Council outlawed camping on public property during the day, but hasn't begun enforcing the ordinance.

Even more recently, city leaders voted unanimously to ban public drug use, but the ordinance can't take effect unless state law changes.

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One area that appears to have changed more dramatically is the public's attitudes toward police.

"Bike squad!" bystanders shout as the officers roll by in their bright yellow jackets.

Business owners, residents and even some of the people being cited for drug use thank the officers for being there.

"It's super positive from the business community and even, for the most part, from just the people we're arresting," Cioeta said.

He and Baer credit the bikes with making them more accessible.

"We're a part of the community because there's nowhere to go, right? When you're on a bike, you're exposed to everything," Baer said. "People can interact with you. You're available. You can hear and smell and see everything that goes on on the streets."

It's a much different environment than two or three summers ago when the sight of an officer in Portland was more likely to be met with hurled insults, and messages like "kill all cops" were scrawled in spray paint on buildings.

Cioeta chalks it up to a "change in the times."

"2020 was just a different time in our society as a whole," he said. "I think people see that and things are just changing dramatically."

To see more of what the bike squad does, click here.

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