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.