ATV crackdown

Fishtown and Kens­ing­ton are pop­u­lar with reck­less op­er­at­ors of all-ter­rain vehicles and dirt bikes. Po­lice are now thwart­ing them in cre­at­ive ways.

Of­ficer John Lordan of the 7th Po­lice Dis­trict in North­east Phil­adelphia, works de­tail that gets il­leg­al mo­tor bikes off the road in­clud­ing Dirt bikes, ATV’s and un­re­gistered mo­tor bikes. ATV’s in Pennypack­er Park have be­come a prob­len in re­cent years.

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

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