As the weather warms, Philadelphia police are preparing to combat what authorities consider a summertime curse — large packs of dirt bikes and ATVs ripping through the city, popping wheelies and zigzagging in and out of traffic.
“It frustrates me, and I know it frustrates everyone seated here, to see these guys blazing up the street,” Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross told City Council during a recent budget hearing. “But when they see us, if you hit the lights, they’re going to take off.”
The police department has launched a task force in collaboration with the streets department, Philadelphia Parking Authority and the mayor’s office that regularly meets to share intelligence and plan ways to thwart the group rides before they start.
Clues pop up on social media and come from neighborhood sources when word spreads that a big ride is coming up.
“We try to catch them off guard,” said police spokesman Sekou Kinebrew. “We try to catch them as they’re mobilizing. Sometimes, we have the element of surprise in our favor.”
But when the riders elude authorities, resident calls come flooding in, Kinebrew said.
“Because of the noise,” he said. “And secondarily, ‘My kids are playing on the street,’ which is very valid. It’s really unfair to expect people, kids on the street, to have to look over their shoulder every five minutes because these guys have already picked up speed that they can’t slow down from on a residential street.”
Police directives forbid engaging in high-speed chases with dirt bike and quad riders, since a pursuit could make a potentially risky episode even more dangerous. Although, there have been instances in which it appeared the rule was not strictly followed.
Just last week, for instance, an unlicensed dirt bike rider collided with a 6-year-old and her aunt in Upper Darby after police attempted to pull over the rider.
“That is the dilemma,” Kinebrew said. “We don’t want to cause an increase in the risk factor or chance of any other injuries, but we don’t want to sit idly by and watch them do something that could be injurious to themselves and others. So it really puts us in a bit of a conundrum.”
Regular confiscations of the vehicles, Kinebrew said, hopefully send a deterrent message to riders.
It is unclear how many dirt bikes and quads authorities have seized so far this year, police said.
Riders have said that zooming through the city’s streets as recreation is a type of escapism and that it keeps them out of trouble. Yet to police, the group rides are escaping something else: the law.
“There is no roadway in Philadelphia where they are legal,” Kinebrew said. “They have no safe spaces.”
Which, to some critics, is part of the problem. In the absence of a place to legally ride, where else are these thrill-seekers to take their speed machines?
“Get yourself a trailer and take them someplace else,” said Ross to riders. “You’re not going to ride them in the city of Philadelphia.”