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Downtown Mad Max

The growing problem of inner city dirt bike gangs turns rural fun into metro trouble.

Imagine sitting in your car at a stop light.  You are checking your phone waiting for the light to turn green.  As you like a friend’s latest picture on social media you notice the light turn green and you put your phone down.  Just as you take your foot off the break and start to go, you hear a rumble and see dozens of dirt bikes and four wheelers ignoring the traffic lights.  They are popping wheelies and having a grand ole time.  They eventually move through the intersection and continue down the road.  This scenario may seem like a minor inconvenience, perhaps even entertaining.  However, the situation has become less amusing for many cities across the country and controlling the problem is proving to be a difficult task.  Headlines across the country illustrate the severity of the impact of these dirt bike gangs.

Vast arrays of strategies have been employed to combat this problem with varying degrees of success.

In early March, a scene like the one described above played out on a California Highway.  Except, in this situation the men on the dirt bikes surrounded and beat a motorist.  The beating left the man with a broken leg that eventually required surgery.  The scene was captured on cell phone video and the California Highway Patrol is currently investigating.  This is not an isolated incident.

On the other side of the country, the city of Baltimore has been dealing with these issues for the past several years.  Reisterstown Road is known for regular gatherings of these dirt bike groups.  In 2015 Allison Blanding was in a crowd that had gathered in a parking lot to watch several dirt bikes perform stunts.  She was struck and killed by one of the dirt bikes who then fled the scene.  Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Cleveland are just a few examples of cities struggling to deal with the problem.

The problems with these dirt bike gangs range from minor traffic disruptions to the type of violence seen in California and Baltimore.  Vast arrays of strategies have been employed to combat this problem with varying degrees of success.  The New York Police Department created a video demonstrating what they would do with illegal dirt bikes they seized.  The video shows a massive collection of dirt bikes being crushed as a way of warning those who might operate dirt bikes within the city. Baltimore City Councilman Pete Welch has advocated the idea of dedicating a park to dirt bike and ATV activities in an effort to keep them off the streets.

Recent protest movements have created some of the same issues that the dirt bike gangs have created.  Some of these protestors have blocked traffic, intimidated pedestrians and other drivers, and even prevented emergency personnel from performing their duties.  Tennessee responded to the issue by proposing a law that grants immunity to drivers who strike a protestor as long as they exercise due care.  This type of law could possibly apply to motorists who strike dirt bike operators who are blocking a roadway.

The dragstrip allows participants to race almost anything that you can imagine and is a regular hang out for those riding motorcycles as well as dirt bikes and ATV’s.

The wide variety of responses is a reflection of how difficult it is for municipalities and law enforcement to control the situation.  The Fayetteville Police Department in Fayetteville, North Carolina recently found themselves in this situation.  During an unrelated investigation officers found information online promoting a dirt bike and ATV meet up in town.  The advertisement indicated that they would be throwing a block party that would include music and food vendors.  Those attending would be charged a $10 admission fee.  The event was to be held in conjunction with a regular event held nearby known as “Freaky Friday.”  That event is a regular event held at a drag strip in Cumberland County and is notorious for violence, narcotics, and criminal activity in general.

The dragstrip allows participants to race almost anything that you can imagine and is a regular hang out for those riding motorcycles as well as dirt bikes and ATV’s.  The existence of the dragstrip and its uninhibited use by these groups is an indicator that Councilman Pete Welch’s park would not be successful.  The Councilman hoped that by giving these gangs a legal place to ride, they would refrain from taking over the local streets.  That has not been the result in Fayetteville.

An argument can made that the dragstrip is not open all the time but the scheduled meet up in Fayetteville was happening at a time when the dragstrip was open.  While the block party might not sound like a major problem as described, it is important to understand that the location for the block party was announced to be a commercial area known as Carolina Square.  The businesses there include mostly bars and strip clubs.  However, no one from the businesses nor the owner of the property was aware of the scheduled block party.  The group was essentially planning to take over the parking lot and use it for their own purposes.

The initial concern was voiced by a representative of the traffic unit who wanted to know if they were supposed to conduct traffic stops on the dirt bike and ATV drivers.

The regularly scheduled Fayetteville Police Department Command Staff meeting that took place on March 14, 2017, included all the regular people.  This included everyone ranked Captain and above, lower ranking representatives of different units within the department, and legal advisors.  At its conclusion a couple members of the Command Staff began instructing a few people to stay behind.  Those people included representatives from the Traffic unit, the Gangs unit, and the Legal Advisors Office.  Everyone was told about the block party and numerous concerns were shared.

The initial concern was voiced by a representative of the traffic unit who wanted to know if they were supposed to conduct traffic stops on the dirt bike and ATV drivers.  The officers discussed that the vehicles rarely have registration plates and they stop for blue lights even less frequently.  The conversation continued throughout the group with different officers explaining that the vehicles are incredibly agile, accelerate quickly, and are also unconstrained by the roadway like a patrol vehicle.  They can cut through parking lots, yards, wooded areas, and many other areas that patrol cars simply cannot go.

At the conclusion of the discussion it was decided that police officers would attempt to stop the vehicles but, they would do so within the already existing chase policy which only allows pursuits for specific crimes including violent felonies and on-going dangers to the public. The plan directed that officers would attempt to stop any of the dirt bikes or ATV’s that they saw, which would at least create a video record of the participating individuals.  If any of the drivers decided to run instead of stopping it was likely that they would find their way to the drag strip.  Descriptions of any such drivers and their vehicles would be radioed to officers just outside the dragstrip and they would attempt to detain and identify the drivers at that location after they had gotten off of their bikes.

The plan was coming together, when the police department received more information…

This plan brought about the question of seizing the bikes and perhaps any trucks or trailers being used to transport them.  With help from the legal advisors, the group concluded that if the bikes were involved in a felony – such as North Carolina’s Felony Fleeing to Elude – they could be seized.  Additionally, the plan was to have officers located in Carolina Square prior to the time of the meet up; the idea being that they could stop the party from happening before it even started.  Another officer was assigned to speak with the property and business owners in order to pre-arrange a trespassing policy.  The officers at Carolina Square would require some authority to turn those arriving for the party away.  This could be done by denying access to anyone with a trailer that could haul dirt bikes, any food trucks, and of course anyone on a dirt bike or ATV.

The plan was coming together, when the police department received more information.  In following up on the social media intelligence that had been gathered, Officers came across some threats against law enforcement including one that referred to them as “Carl Winslows” and stated that they would, “lay them on their backs” if they tried to stop them from riding.  That comment brought a few chuckles from around the room but the threat was serious.  It was determined that the gang unit would be involved to identify, and gain information on, those that were involved in planning the event and making the threats.

The Fayetteville Police Department created a well thought out and comprehensive plan.  The only remaining question was how it would pan out.  Humorously, it turned out to be more like an episode of the World’s Dumbest Criminals, rather than one from Mad Max or The Fast and the Furious.  The party never came to fruition and only a few dirt bikes were spotted by officers that night.  However, three bikes were spotted driving up and down the street next to the police station.

[The camera] system is not flawless…

Over the last several years, the Fayetteville Police Department has worked to put a citywide camera system in place.  Cameras are located at numerous intersections and other areas where people congregate.  Many of the cameras have license plate readers attached which allow the system to track vehicles as they move between cameras.  While the system is not flawless, it is effective and very high quality.  Officers have the ability to monitor the incoming footage from a room that looks like somewhere you would launch a space shuttle from.  One wall is completely covered in monitors and several rows of workstations face the monitors.

On the night of the planned meet up, cameras were able to track the bikes as they traveled through intersections all the way back to a neighborhood.  Unmarked units were sent to the neighborhood and two of the three bikes were located in a front yard.  Officers approached and detained the drivers of those two bikes.  A brief investigation revealed that one of the bikes was stolen and during a search incident to arrest, nearly a pound of Marijuana was found in that driver’s backpack.

A night that could have been very disruptive in the city of Fayetteville was instead no different than any other Friday night.  This is not to say that Fayetteville has completely beaten this problem.  The moral of this story is that municipalities and law enforcement agencies can prevent these groups from creating hazards for law abiding citizens.  It is not and will not be an easy endeavor.  The Fayetteville Police Department applied intelligence gathering, coordination at multiple locations, communicating with business owners, and a great deal of technology to deter one event.

Intelligence gathering is key regardless of the size of the municipality.

The bulk of the violations of law committed by these groups are very minor.  They include, among others, registration violations, speeding, and impeding traffic.  The offenses can escalate and that can be troublesome.  The greatest danger with these groups lies in their mindset.  Their group behavior demonstrates a lack of concern for the law and the general welfare of the people.  The social media comments from the group in Fayetteville granted insight into a hoard of individuals that felt as if the streets belonged to them and no one could stop them.  That feeling is only emboldened by time and the size of the group.

What does a city do when they have a problem that is made up of minor violations but is far greater than the sum of its parts?  It appears from the success of Fayetteville’s operation that the answer is to keep the groups from forming.  This will obviously be more difficult in larger cities where the groups are more neighborhood based.  That is likely what necessitated some of those cities outlawing the operation of dirt bikes and ATV’s in the city limits all together.

Intelligence gathering is key regardless of the size of the municipality.  That can be an officer talking to people outside of a local grocery store or maintaining fictitious social media accounts to monitor activity within certain groups.  Once these dirt bike gangs have gathered and begin running amuck, it is too late to control them.  It is also quite difficult to disperse them.  Prevention is the key and doing it early inhibits the lawless mentality that is inherent in these groups.

Members of these dirt bike communities will argue that they are not hurting anyone and will often disagree with being identified as gangs.  Those same members will describe the bike gatherings as a way to relax or to blow off steam and characterize the whole situation as just being a way for the group to have a good time.  While there may be an element of truth in that line of thinking for some of the individuals involved, it is difficult to find anyone outside of these groups to agree with that sentiment.  Baltimore had to create an email address dedicated to tips and complaints about the bike situation.  The Fayetteville Police Department received a flood of calls when the groups used the streets around the city’s mall as their personal playground.  This problem is one that cities, big and small, would do well to get out in front of.

Eric Ditmore
About Eric Ditmore (2 Articles)
Eric is a third year law student who serves as a Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. Originally from Linden, NC., Eric received his undergraduate degree in education from Fayetteville State University. Before beginning law school, he was a high school teacher and a deputy with the Cumberland County Sheriff's Office. During his time at Campbell, Eric has worked with the Cumberland County District Attorney's Office, the Fayetteville Police Department, and the law firm of Lewis, Deese, and Nance. His is interested in pursuing work in either family law or as a legal advisor for a law enforcement agency.