When a scofflaw zooms into a city park aboard an all-terrain “quad” or off-road motorcycle, Philadelphia police are prohibited from chasing him.
It’s a matter of public safety.
Likewise, if the cops spot a rogue rider tearing down a public street, a police department ban on setting up roadblocks means that officers can’t readily “cut him off at the pass.”
Yet citizens still expect police to thwart the hundreds of reckless ATV and dirt bike pilots who each summer turn streets, parks and even privately owned wooded areas throughout the city into makeshift motocross playgrounds.
So this summer, Philadelphia’s men and women in blue have turned to guerilla tactics and launched a new war against this relentless nemesis. Information and the element of surprise have become their biggest weapons in a battle of attrition.
Since Aug. 5, police have seized more than 100 unregistered off-road vehicles via special tactical operations in selected neighborhoods throughout the city, including and perhaps most notably several chronic haunts in the police department’s East and Northeast Divisions.
Despite extensive news media coverage of the recent “crackdown,” the message apparently has continued to elude law-breaking off-road riders.
“I can’t believe it. [We] go out every night and they’re still out there,” said Capt. Frank Vanore, the commander of the 25th Police District and coordinator of ATV/dirt bike enforcement for the East Division.
The campaign began with the secrecy of military “black ops.” That first weekend, cops seized 37 ATVs and cycles during raids of known riding grounds in Fishtown, Feltonville, Kensington, North Philadelphia and Cobbs Creek.
Word of the initiative didn’t reach the news media and the public at-large until after the fact.
On August 11 and 12, cops hit many of the same spots, in addition to Belmont Plateau in West Fairmount Park, and netted 29 more vehicles. Then last weekend, they confiscated 27 vehicles in the same territories.
While ATVs and so-called “dirt bikes” might seem to pose the greatest danger to their amateur and generally unlicensed riders, the machines also threaten the safety and wellbeing of law-abiding motorists and pedestrians who share the congested urban environment. They destroy nature, too.
That’s why they’re banned throughout Philadelphia, according to Venore. It’s not illegal to own, purchase or sell them in the city, but it is against the law to ride them with few exceptions.
Section 7721 of the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code prohibits ATVs and snowmobiles on any street or highway notwithstanding special designation by a government agency. Further, city ordinances ban the vehicles on all public property, including parks and recreation centers.
Conceivably, private landowners may grant permission for riders to use their properties. But that scenario is a rarity, while trespassing seems the norm.
Off-road vehicles also present a quality of life issue.
Violators often travel in large, noisy groups and congregate, engines screaming, at designated riding grounds. One such location is the Officer Lauretha Vaird Boys and Girls Club at 4800 Whitaker Ave. in Feltonville. The recreation center abuts Tacony Creek Park, a narrow, winding green strip serving as the boundary between the East and Northeast Police Divisions.
“There’s actually a [obstacle] course they made back there,” Vanore said. “Especially on Sundays, they come in – even from outside the city – unload their ATVs and are really tearing it up.”
They come by the dozens.
“I go to a lot of community meetings and [people say] when they’re all in the woods, it’s a constant buzzing,” Vanore said.
Similarly, riders seem to gather en masse on idle industrial property along the Delaware River in Fishtown, off of Beach Street. Hunting Park in North Philly is another destination, Venore said.
The Northeast is not immune from similar scenarios.
According to Sgt. Jeff Hickson, the tactical sergeant in the 7th district, off-road motorists utilize miles of wooded railroad property along the CSX-owned freight line that runs like a spine from one end of the district to the other.
The railroad parallels Roosevelt Boulevard and crosses Bustleton Avenue just south of Haldeman Avenue. The buffer zone on either side of it encompasses hundreds of acres.
“We have a lot of park up here,” Hickson said, “probably more than the East Division. It becomes a problem sometimes, depending on the kids. Now is one of those times.”
Tactically, police understandably wish to reveal little about how they go about catching ATV and dirt bike riders.
Information is the foundation of the operations. Many residents are more than willing to tell police when and where the biggest problems occur.
Patrol districts in the East and Northeast Divisions have their own off-road motorcycles at their disposal, which provide the access and mobility that police cars, wagons and bicycles cannot. The police department’s two helicopters also come in handy, offering birds-eye views of the subjects and leading ground forces to hot spots.
Even so, there are no chases or roadblocks per se.
“We have to be creative. We try to get them before they go into the park or while they’re at rest,” Hickson said.
It’s something police have done on a piecemeal basis for years. But now it’s become systematic.
“Now we have officers dedicated to targeting them. [Officers] are there for this purpose,” Vanore said.
The biggest problem so far, in fact, is what happens to all the confiscated ATVs and dirt bikes. Police can impound the vehicles and issue citations to violators, who may be issued fines of $50 to $200 in accordance with the state statute.
But once the fines and storage fees are paid, police must eventually return the vehicles to their rightful owners.
Unsatisfied with this resolution, police have begun to enlist the Philadelphia Parking Authority to conduct “live stops” on ATV and dirt bike riders, citing them for operating their vehicles without valid registrations or licenses.
In such cases, the Parking Authority will keep the vehicles, but will eventually dispose of them at public auction, allowing potential scofflaws to return the vehicles into public operation.
This also is unacceptable to law enforcement.
“[Lawmakers] are trying to get some legislation together to make it more difficult for [scofflaws] to get these things back,” Vanore said.
Reporter William Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or firstname.lastname@example.org.