By PAT EATON-ROBB
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Popping wheelies and running stop lights, ATV street riders who buzz through Connecticut cities in packs have long frustrated police, who are prohibited from chasing the riders through congested urban neighborhoods.
Police are now pursuing more creative ways to stop them, setting up a hotline in Bridgeport for anonymous tips and a task force in New Haven that shares intelligence with surrounding towns to work together when a ride starts.
“It really is a form of urban terrorism, what they do,” said New Haven police Officer David Hartman. “Safety concerns and the hazardous conditions they create have been a major challenge for us.”
The groups of ATV and dirt bike enthusiasts gather through word of mouth or social media, much like flash mobs, and ride illegally through city streets, pulling stunts as they try to evade police. Law enforcement officers have complained about them as a menace in other cities including Philadelphia and Baltimore, where a group of riders was the subject of a popular 2013 documentary called “12 0’Clock Boys.”
In Bridgeport last weekend, police made nine arrests after a pack of riders hit the streets, tearing through neighborhoods and doing stunts, Bridgeport police spokesman William Kaempffer said. Two of the bikers were caught after wrecking their rides, and police were able to arrest others after Saturday’s ride was over.
Kaempffer said people are encouraged to call the anonymous tip line to tell police where the vehicles are being stored. Often, he said, the owners rent vans or trucks to transport their bikes and ATVs.
“We have undercover cops out looking for rented vans, cargo vans, trucks,” he said. “We’ve devoted a great deal of time identifying the organizers of these things, so we know where to look. Then we set up, and we wait for them to return.”
They also use photographs of riders breaking the law, which are provided by the public. And police monitor social media, hoping to pick up word of a ride in advance. Police say the new task force in New Haven helped stop a planned ride in May and resulted in several arrests.
One of the biggest weapons has been fines.
New Haven police went to state Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, for help. He sponsored legislation that passed the Legislature in 2013 expanding the allowable fines for illegally riding ATVs and dirt bikes. The maximum fines had been $250. It is now $1,000 for a first offense, and up to $2,000 for repeat offenders.
“It used to be just so easy for people to get the ticket, we’d impound the bike and they would show up the next day and pay a $75 storage fee and they’d be back on the road the next day,” Hartman said.
New Haven and other cities also supported legislation last year that would have allowed police to confiscate and destroy off-road vehicles being used illegally.
Russell MacIntyre, a board member of the New England Trail Riders Association, said nobody condones the actions of street riding gangs. But he said the state makes it hard for anybody to ride the vehicles because no trails on state land allow them, despite a 30-year-old law mandating that riding areas be established.
“If every place is illegal, why not ride anywhere you want to?” he said. “You can’t get a bigger ticket riding one place than another.”