They herald the start of spring every year in Philadelphia and, as each year passes, they become bolder and more ubiquitous.
Philly’s rogue dirt bikers are a constant nuisance for locals; they’re loud, reckless and they tend to startle drivers when they least expect it–pulling a wheelie at 70 mph on 95, for instance. But they’re a uniquely complicated problem for authorities, as their ability to tightly maneuver through city streets often prevents cops from giving chase.
Officially, police employ a “no-pursuit” policy because of the obvious danger to public (and the perp’s) safety. However, the recent death of a 14-year-old while being pursued by cops (a chase allegedly initiated by police) is forcing officials to re-examine their approach when it comes to dealing the droves of dirt bikers taking over Philly’s streets.
On March 13th, Jermaine Alexander was riding a dirt bike with his friend, Eric Carter, in front of Warren G. Harding Middle School. Though authorities deny it, Eric claims that a marked police car begun chasing the two boys. The mile-long pursuit ended when Jermaine crashed his dirt bike into a van, killing him.
Jermaine’s family is outraged over his death. In a statement to Philly.com, Jermaine’s mother, Sarina Howard-Witherspoon, said, “There’s a lot of kids his age out there selling drugs, shooting people. He ain’t one of those kids. The only thing he wanted to do was ride that bike.”
His family has since hired a lawyer and are asking police to release the footage from official dashboard cameras, alleging that eye-witness testimony will reveal that Jermaine actually collided with a police van that was taking part in the chase. They hope to file an Internal Affairs complaint to show that police have pursued their son in the past, “bumping” his dirt bike with their police cruisers.
Jaryn Warren, a friend of Jermaine, echoed this claim, telling the Inquirer, “If they chasing you, they gonna bump you. They trying to hit you so they can knock you off the bike. You got to keep going, because you stop, they take your bike, and they gonna say you agg-assaulted them. They gonna say you driving recklessly. The story gets switched all over.”
Police spokesman Lt. Raymond Evers responded, “Not happening.”
For a long time, locals seemed to accept reckless dirt bikes as an inescapable problem, just another part of life in Philadelphia. For authorities, it’s a bit of a catch-22: They can choose to either risk pubic safety and give chase or allow riders to flout the law and continue endangering the public..
So is there any plausible solution? Well, Peter Moskos, an associate professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is suggesting an altogether different approach. “This is not a natural rite of spring. The culture can be changed… police should enlist the help of the community, the church leaders, to crack down on this.”
Local social worker and freelance writer, Jeff Deeney, also suggested a similar method. “Give poor kids in poor neighborhoods more outlets for constructive outdoor activity.”
One popular idea is to give riders a legitimate area to ride instead of the street. But if you’re wont to believe Jeff Deeney, that probably wouldn’t end the plague of illegal riders. He explains, “It’s part of a whole set of reckless behaviors that go along with being a young, corner-hustler kid, just having your ATV or bike and blasting wheelies up and down the block. It’s a ‘Go f— yourself!’ to the cops.”
In a Temple-produced video detailing the issue, 25th District Capt. Frank Vanore agreed, stating that “some of the people are going to be defiant and ride them around anyway.”
There is, however, one suggestion that (to my knowledge) has not been offered: Why not go after riders while they gas up? While this wouldn’t solve the issue entirely, it could, at the very least, warn other riders that there are actual consequences to recklessly driving illegal, off-road vehicles.
My bedroom in South Philly provides me with a splendid, bird’s-eye view of the Lukoil at Broad and Wharton. Every weekend, like clockwork, large groups of dirt bike and ATV-riders congregate to fuel up. It’s loud and it bugs me, but I must confess, I’ve never called the police.
But why not? That seems like a perfect opportunity to nab illegal riders in a setting that presents less risks than a high-speed pursuit. It really wouldn’t be that difficult for police to urge gas station attendants or nearby residents to notify them when riders are getting gas. Given that they’re largely regarded as a dangerous nuisance, I’m pretty sure the public would be inclined to help the police.
We could, at the very least, get bikes and ATVs without proper registration or insurance tags off the streets; a tactic that’s infinitely better than what the police are currently doing: Nothing.