Getting Beyond ‘Broken Windows’ Policing in Illegal Dirt Bike Dilemma

(Photo: AP/Connecticut Post/Autumn Driscoll)

Dirt bike riders cruise illegally on a city street in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in November 2014.

When the weather warms up in New York and other cities, some young men take to the streets on non-street-legal motorcycles, known as dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles. The illegal caravans of young men performing acrobatics and weaving in out of traffic at high speeds are free entertainment for some bystanders, but a seasonal nightmare for police departments.

The bikes pollute neighborhoods with noise, put pedestrians and drivers at risk for injuries and death, and leave youth at risk for potentially dangerous confrontations with police, encounters that have a high potential for violence. “We are going to crush them on TV to make a point,” said New York Mayor Bill de Blasio last month. That’s what the New York Police Department plans to do with the hundreds of illegal dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles that the city has seized.

The dirt bike phenomenon has produced two types of responses from police and municipal officials: One relies on classic tactics of punishment and retribution; the other tries to redirect young people into activities that promote more desirable behaviors. But confronting illegal dirt-biking provides a window on how cities can get beyond applying “broken windows” approaches to minor crimes and find a middle way between public safety and the over-the-top behavior of youthful riders.

The first approach is on display in Boston and New York, where major crackdowns are underway. Labeling the illegal riders “knuckleheads,” “nitwits,” and “clowns,” New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said that the department will destroy the more than 300 bikes it has seized. Heading the NYPD in the 1990s, Bratton popularized the “broken windows” philosophy of policing that holds that aggressively targeting misdemeanors and nuisance activities helps curb illegal activities higher up the crime food chain. Broken-windows policing remains controversial in New York, especially for community leaders who argue that police target young African American and Latino men for minor crimes. But Bratton remains committed to the strategy when it comes to urban dirt-biking. “We have significant resources out looking to get these characters,” he said.

Strictly speaking, riding a dirt bike or all-terrain vehicle on city streets is a traffic violation like riding recklessly, violating right of way, or speeding, according to Jim Witters, managing editor of the American Motorcyclist Association based in Ohio. Moreover, the non-street-legal vehicles are generally not licensed, registered, or built by the manufacturers for streets, according to Witters.

But broken-windows policing can only take a community so far when it comes to activities that appeal to young people bent on thrills. When asked why New York didn’t come up with a dedicated facility for dirt bikers, Bratton had an answer straight out of the French Revolution. "Let them go out to Long Island and ride them,” he said.

What police departments and most residents view as an illegal nuisance, others see as an acceptable extreme sport that gets teenagers out of the grips of drugs and gangs. “I was once one of those kids back before I got on the bike,” “Benmore,” now a construction worker and college student, told DNAinfo, a New York neighborhood news outlet, in 2012. “We were into all kind of crime because we had nothing else to do.” There are facilities for dirt bikers elsewhere in the state, but for young bikers, getting to them is difficult. When bikers tried to set up their own course on Ward Island, police shut it down.

“A lot of these people are generally young men looking for an outlet,” says Witters. He considers the New York response to the bikers “heavy handed” and says it won’t work in the long run. “We understand the frustration of law enforcement because these motorcyclists are hard to catch especially in traffic; they can maneuver in traffic jams [in ways] that police officers can’t,” Witters told the Prospect. “But just grabbing up bikes destroying them hasn’t proven successful in the past.”

Philadelphia and Baltimore have taken a more collaborative approach to the problem that tries to balance to the need to redirect the energies of young people with the demands of neighborhood residents who want the public safety threats eliminated. Witter says the motorcyclist association has helped the two cities spearhead talks between dirt bikers, community leaders, municipal officials, and off-highway vehicle dealers and manufacturers to strategize how to create venues in cities where young people and their fans can have events and residents can see an end to noise and safety issues.

Philadelphia plans to hold exploratory hearings in the coming months on establishing a possible off-highway vehicle park in the city. Several sites, including a privately owned former industrial site on the Delaware River, have been identified. However, Josh Cohen, a spokesman for City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., who backs the proposal, says there are “a lot of hurdles” to overcome, including location and costs.

Baltimore officials have been weighing the issues associated with creating a venue specifically for the dirt bikers for a number of years, and Washington, D.C., is also discussing legislative and recreational solutions. Other urban, suburban, and rural communities in 34 states have turned to national nonprofit organizations like National Youth Project Using Minibikes to run local programs that offer training and instruction for at-risk and disadvantaged youth.

Setting up public off-highway vehicle parks won’t completely solve the problem, especially for people who consider themselves urban outlaws and like to skirt the edges of the law. But it will put a “significant dent” in the problem, says Witters. Such a move would also get the kids who are just interested having in a good time off the streets. He compares municipal officials’ views on dirt bikers to the ones they had about skateboarders some years ago until they finally figured out how to deal them by building skate parks. “It took a lot of the problems off of the sidewalks and the city parks and put them in a safe setting where these guys could enjoy their activities in a legal, safe, and closed environment.”

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