In-Depth: New York police departments cracking down on dirt bikes

Charles Molineaux
Created: March 23, 2021 06:04 PM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — Police in cities across New York State say deadly crashes involving illegal vehicles on city streets have become all too common, but they do have ways to crack down, safely, without dangerous high-speed chases.

“Every single year, as the weather gets nice—you know—this is what we’re dealing with, and it’s frustrating for us as a department,” Sgt. Nick Mannix with the Schenectady Police Department said.

Mannix said unlicensed dirt bikes and ATVs on city streets are a familiar problem in Schenectady and so are deadly consequences like a dirt bike crash that killed one man there last fall.

After the deaths of two people in the past two days during illegal dirt bike rides in Rochester, police say the problem is nationwide and hard to control, partly because many departments have policies against pursuing them.

“We’re not chasing motorcycles. That’s no surprise. Everyone’s aware of that. We’re not chasing minibikes. We can’t do that,” Rochester police Capt. Mark Mura said. “We are absolutely not going to enforce a ticket for a motorcycle if it’s going to put lives in danger.”

“A lot of these are unskilled operators driving these vehicles,” Capt. Jeff Rinaldo with the Buffalo Police Department said. “They will drive them on sidewalks, across lawns, through parks and in places that make it extremely dangerous to the public, the motorist who is trying to evade the police and the officers themselves.”

But police say they do have options.

Last year, Buffalo started working with Erie County and the New York State Police to track illegal vehicles down with helicopters to where they could be safely caught and confiscated.

"You can't outrun a helicopter,” Rinaldo said. “You can't outrun a police radio. And, I think that, in total, citizens are starting to get very frustrated with this behavior and we are starting to see more and more and more cooperation." 

Rochester police say they do get increased public cooperation after tragedies like they've seen this week, encouraging because in recent incidents Rochester police have been ignored or even taunted by illegal bikers sure they'd get away with it.

"Nobody wants to be sworn in to protect the public and then have somebody taunt them and, right in front of them, violate the law,” Mura said. “So it's incredibly frustrating. There's no doubt about it." 

In the past few months, the city of Buffalo instituted steep fines which could set illegal riders back some $3,000 to retrieve their wheels after they get confiscated.   

Mannix says, instead of high-speed chases, his department is trying the much less dramatic approach of simple detective work. 

“We’ve had pretty good success just being a little more accessible and speaking with the community members,” he said. “Applying for a search warrant and going that route, we have found has been it’s been pretty successful for us, but it’s a little bit more of a time-consuming effort. So that’s what we’ve asked our community just to try to be a little more understanding about that. We realize it’s not a quick fix.”

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