Police Wage War on Urban Dirt Bikes, Crush 62 Seized Vehicles in D.C.

A deputy police chief's message to riders: "You're not safe. We are coming for you."


dirt bike
Theodore Parisienne/Splash News/Newscom

In some cities, police are deploying bulldozers and aerial surveillance to combat the illegal activity of riding dirt bikes and ATVs through city streets. Despite few urban deaths from biking, law enforcement justifies their war by calling riders "malicious" and saying the sport poses serious danger.

Motorized dirt bikes and ATVs (all-terrain vehicles) are typically not street legal because they lack the necessary safety features to be driven on public roads like turn signals and brake lights. They are usually ridden in parks or rural areas.

Riding dirt bikes on city streets is also an inner-city trend found in D.C., Baltimore, New York City, and other major municipalities. Police claim that most bikes used for urban riding are stolen and/or not registered.

The hobby persists despite police crackdowns. Bikers claim that riding is part of their culture and that biker groups act as a sort of diversion program to keep members from spending money on drugs and guns.

Further, police are often not allowed to chase bikers, which seems to create a game of cat and mouse. As a result, bikers can ride in large "gangs" and disrupt traffic, often without any immediate consequence.

Just last month, bikers reignited their war with police when an estimated 100 bikes weaved through traffic in National Harbor, just outside of D.C. in Maryland. There were no injuries, but law enforcement accuses the drivers of wreaking havoc for about 30 minutes. Prince George's County Deputy Police Chief George Nichols gave bikers an ominous warning: "This will not be tolerated. Don't think you just got away with it. … You're not safe. We are coming for you."

A few weeks later, D.C. police crushed 62 dirt bikes and ATVs. Police Chief Peter Newsham told bikers that demolitions will continue "as long as they continue endangering the lives of everyone on our streets." D.C. police told Reason that the bikes were crushed to keep them from returning to the streets and because they would be difficult to store.

While dirt bike riding can be dangerous and has been disruptive, there is little evidence that it's a crisis. D.C. police told Reason that there were no casualties involving dirt bikes in 2015, 2016, or so far in 2017. There was only one crash that resulted in serious injury over that three-year period. Other crimes have been committed by dirt bike riders, but crushing bikes seems unlikely to prevent shootings or other dirt bikes from being stolen.

The war on dirt bikes is not isolated to the capitol. New York City tried to combat street biking last year with a publicized crushing of bikes. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton waved a checkered flag before a bulldozers decimated 69 of them. After the demolition, he justified the strange spectacle: "We want to send out a very strong message to the nitwits and knuckleheads who insist on operating these illegal vehicles … creating extraordinary danger not only for themselves but more importantly for the public."

Bratton makes serious accusations against bikers, but does not have data to support his claims. The NYPD told Reason that they do not keep any data on accidents or fatalities involving ATVs.

Nearby Baltimore has tried many different tactics to combat riders. The city launched a four-man dirt bike task force last year, which they claim led to 45 arrests and 200 confiscated bikes. Previously, the city tried to end these illegal rides by shutting down popular roadways and using undercover cops. And calling this crackdown a war on dirt bikes is hardly an exaggeration—the police department uses an aerial surveillance system, technology meant for the Iraq War, to track down riders.

Some locals think the crackdown is working, others interviewed by The Baltimore Sun, have not seen a decrease in ridership. Again, fatalities resulting from dirt bikes hardly justify military technology: The Baltimore police told Reason that there were three deaths in 2015, two in 2016, and so far none this year.

In addition to police overemphasizing the safety risks of city riding, bikers and those that have spent time with them claim that they have also been falsely identified as thugs. A dirt bike documentarian, Lofty Nathan, told The Atlantic that dirt biking is a sort of "escape" for Baltimore's inner-city riders:

"It's simultaneously wholesome and meaningful, but also reckless and destructive. It depends what side you look from. What is important, is that in the context of the city, it is actually constructive for some of these kids…Marginalized communities will react to certain conditions, and they are just going to need to do something…It has to be rebellious but at the same time it could be a lot worse. In this community, it's almost wholesome like the boy scouts."

This sentiment was echoed in a five minute mini-documentary called "Wheelz Up" that chronicles dirt bike riders in D.C. The video is narrated anonymously by a rider who also says he works two jobs while finishing high school. According to the narrator, bikers are "just trying to have fun" and have been stereotyped by police. He says he paid for his bike in cash and continues to invest money in it instead of buying drugs.

While law enforcement in New York City, D.C. and Baltimore continue to wage war on bikers, Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson recognizes that "people who ride dirt bikes are not all thugs." The city is building a dirt bike and ATV park for riders, similar to a skate park.

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  1. Oops. We had accidentally turned commenting off on this one. Comment away!

    1. What?!? No hat tip for my email at 5:04:19 and Allie’s response at 5:11:17?

      And no alt-text. Scott, if you’re going to take the blame for the intern’s mishap, how about passing on your mad alt-text skills?

      This site has really gone downhill.


  2. DC has been taken over by fussy prissy white people-I miss the days when DC was a place where almost anything goes.

  3. A deputy police chief’s message to riders: “You’re not safe. We are coming for you.”

    Who says there aren’t any honest cops anymore?

  4. I was going to note this:

    The city is building a dirt bike and ATV park for riders, similar to a skate park.

    and wonder if that’s entrapment, because if it’s meant for all the poor inner-city youts, then I doubt they have pickups with which to transport their dirt bikes to the park, so they’ll have to ride them there and back illegally.

    It’s a trap!! A two-way trap!

  5. Municipalities should just issue letters of marque and let the free market handle it.

  6. Prince George County PD: To protect and come for you.

  7. Just last month, bikers reignited their war with police when an estimated 100 bikes weaved through traffic in National Harbor, just outside of D.C. in Maryland. There were no injuries

    How disappointing. Bikers should stay the hell off the roads if they’re not going to follow the rules, especially those ones who cut up between the lanes, ride up on the sidewalk, run red lights and so on, all while sporting those stupid “Share The Road” signs. My gas tax dollars paid for those roads, what’s to share, you dirty hippy? Buy a car, you look like a jackass pedaling around town. A poor, stupid jackass.

    1. These are good internal combustion-powered bikes. Not the bad human-powered ones.

  8. If they hit something, hit them.

    If they kill someone, kill them.

    If they do no harm to anyone… Fill in the blank.

    Why is this so hard for most people?

  9. This is so dumb.

  10. So motorcycle riding in the city is so unsafe that cops want to put riders in jail for their own protection.

    It makes sense. Because as we all know, nothing bad ever happens to anyone in jail. They’re probably the safest, most coddling and nurturing places on earth.

    And people wonder why I detest government.

  11. I don’t give a bleep about the biker’s lives or health, but they disrupt the normal flow of traffic and can endanger MY life. That gives me (or those I authorize to act in my name) a solid reason to get them off of the street.

    1. If you’re *paying attention while driving* then there’s no way they can endanger your life. None at all. One of these things hits your Smart Car and the the Smart Car will still win.

      They’re sure as fuck annoying – saying they’re a danger is bullshit.

  12. As a former skate punk that went through much of the same harassment, I can not fault the cops for this. In hindsight, skating on the sidewalk is dangerous for pedestrians, particularly the elderly and very young. I also would question your assertion of a few deaths, there are 3 memorials on the main road leading to my Boston house – due to this this. Just yesterday, I commented to my older son as we watched a pack of dirt bikes go down the street with several standing 1 footed on the seat while pulling a wheelie, that it was evolution at work. Pulling those stunts in the woods or in a park is dangerous enough, doing it in a pack with cars following on the road is moronic – one goes down, many go down, then the cars run them over. Build parks like they have skate parks now, or allow there use in more forests/parks – but get them off the street.

    1. How many of those memorials were for dead dirt bikers? I’m willing to bet all three. There’s no call to stop people doing stupid shit *for their own safety*. These people assumed the risk and paid the price.

  13. It’s the fact that these bikes are not street legal that has everyone’s panties in a twist.

    The bikers are not respecting the government’s authoritah.

  14. Really? You’re going to defend guys driving motorcycles on sidewalks, going the wrong way on streets, driving 60+ mph on residential streets, busting through stop signs and red lights? Because that’s what these gangs are doing. Just go on Youtube and watch the videos. They are acting incredibly recklessly. That “only” 4 people have died over the last couple years is kind of amazing, but it hardly proves that this is just harmless activity. Let’s save our defenses for people that don’t gratuitously put others at risk.

  15. It’s not entirely that they are riding the dirt bikes on the streets. There is also the rampant they of dirt bikes from dealerships to support inner city youth “cash” purchases. Shutting down the rides, riders, is being done to reduce the thefts from dealerships.

    I was in the 395 tunnel in DC on my motorcycle when a pack of dirt bikes rolled through. Watching an ATV ride a wheelie between cars is cring worthy. Have 40 bikes roll by at high speed in stopped traffic can be unnerving.

    Not a fan of this article. I believe in the “if there is no harm there is no crime” mentally, but you missed the mark in this article. You failed to analyze the how those dirt bikes end up in inner cities.

    1. So, in order to prevent theft for drug money, we should ban… “valuable things”?

      This sounds like a plan with massive potential for both unnecessary catastrophic economic harm and utter hilarity. Given that these are my 2 favorite things, I offer you my complete support.

  16. Seems a lot of people here really have no clue. They are not talking about couple kids riding non street legal bikes down the road. These delinquents are a hazard. They ride wide open on the throttle, no regard for traffic. Sidewalks, stop signs, red lights it doesn’t matter. I live very near Baltimore and have been caught up in their hooliganism. Their rights end where mine begin.

  17. They do it differently in New York City.
    They infiltrate cops with the bikers. Makes everything safer and more professional.

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