In August 2021, a woman was dragged from her car and beaten by a gang of around 10 dirt bike and ATV riders after she honked her horn at a Providence intersection. Her young child and dog were inside the car.
Providence Police asked for tips to identify the suspects. Police eventually made one arrest.
Motorists across the Ocean State offered a collective shudder.
“Members of the public should never provoke or confront these riders but remain vigilant and report this illegal activity to police,” said Johnston Police Chief Mark A. Vieira.
Spring’s warm weather is welcomed in New England, but it also means the beginning of illegal off-road season on Rhode Island’s streets and highways.
Johnston, Cranston and Providence police have all pledged to crackdown on the illicit operation of recreational vehicles on town and city roads.
“I am in full support of the crackdown on these ATV/dirt bike gangs,” said Johnston Mayor Joseph Polisena Jr. “These bikes and ATVs are not street legal and they present a clear and immediate danger to legal vehicles and motorists on the street.”
Roving groups of off-road vehicles aren’t a rare sight in Rhode Island. The riders, and sometimes affected motorists, often record the incidents and post them online.
In August 2020, Rhode Island State Police (RISP) responded to reports that a group of more than 40 riders were blocking highways throughout Providence, and near the Cranston city limits. At least two crashes resulted. Once again, police made a single arrest.
“This illegal activity poses a significant danger to the public and has a negative impact on the quality of life for our residents and businesses,” said Cranston Police Chief Col. Michael J. Winquist. “We have experienced isolated incidents where groups of … adults operating ATVs and dirt bikes have entered Cranston. Some of these incidents have resulted in arrests and the seizure of the vehicles.”
The nature of the crime — alleged offenders often disperse before police are able to initiate traffic stops — makes it difficult for citizens to report incidents on-time, and tricky for law enforcement to tackle the problem in real-time and make arrests.
“The Johnston Police Department is committed to combating large groups of illegal ATV/ dirt bike riders who dangerously swarm public roadways,” Vieira said. “We will work in conjunction with neighboring jurisdictions such as Providence and Cranston to address this issue which puts the motoring public at risk.”
Johnston, like most municipalities, has specific laws on the books restricting non-street-legal bikes from operating on town streets.
“The town of Johnston has an ordinance that strictly prohibits recreational motor vehicles from public streets, public parks, or any area within the town where motor vehicles are not allowed,” Vieira said. “Violators of the ordinance are subject to a fine of $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second offense, and $300 for each offense thereafter. Recreational vehicles used in violation of the town ordinance are impounded at the owner's expense and are not released until all court action is completed.”
Cranston Police say they’re serious about enforcing the rules of the road.
“The City of Cranston (and) Cranston Police Department (have) always been proactive in enforcing the laws relating to illegal and reckless operation of ATVs and dirt bikes,” Winquist said. “We will continue to work with our neighboring police departments to address this safety concern. We will be especially vigilant now that the warmer weather is here.”
Last week, Providence Mayor Brett P. Smiley and Providence Police Chief Col. Oscar L. Perez announced the state capital’s new Providence Police Community Response Team “to combat illegal ATV and dirt bike riding throughout the City.”
Smiley circulated a press release, insisting his administration and city police “want to send a clear message to individuals who operate these vehicles, that law enforcement officials will be working to prevent this illegal activity and reckless behavior on our roadways will not be tolerated by police.”
“We want people to know we are serious about stopping the use of these illegal vehicles that put everyone at risk and make our streets unsafe,” said Mayor Brett Smiley. “By creating the Community Response Team, we will be using more resources than in the past to detect activity before it occurs, and we will be pursuing the appropriate criminal charges. No one should be using these vehicles and if they are caught doing so, they will face serious consequences.”
The city plans to seize more vehicles and use undercover detective work, surveillance technology and social media to track down and charge offenders.
“Through these means, PPD will be able to identify illegal activity within the city, proactively seize vehicles, pursue additional and higher criminal charges as it may relate to a case, and ultimately ensure the safety of our residents and visitors,” according to a press release from Smiley’s office.
“I am proud to be unveiling this new, proactive strategy to address what has been a problem in our community for years,” Perez said. “Every Providence Police officer knows the real dangers and impacts the use of illegal ATVs and motorcycles has had in our neighborhoods. Beginning today, the officers of the Providence Police Department will be working with the community, stakeholders and surrounding cities to investigate and fully pursue all illegal activity associated with the operation and storage of these vehicles now through the summer months.”
Following Smiley’s announcement, Black Lives Matter RI PAC and the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island released a joint-statement, raising concerns with the newly announced crackdown plans.
“Our organizations share the city’s goal of creating a safe environment for all residents, but seeking ways to criminalize ATV and dirt bike use — and utilizing expansive surveillance techniques to do so — are deeply troubling methods to pursue this laudable goal,” according to BLM RI PAC and the ACLU of RI. “We know that turning civil traffic offenses into criminal ones in this context will disproportionately affect young people and Black and Brown neighborhoods, have a severely discriminatory impact, and undermine the critical need for greater equity in the criminal justice system.”
Besides the racial component, the organizations also expressed privacy worries:
“These concerns are compounded by the City’s stated intention of using ‘video technology’ to track down ATV and dirt bike users. Given the objections that we and others have raised about the intrusive installation of Flock Safety surveillance technology in Providence and the severely limited protections that residents have from this technology, the potential use of these cameras to track and target ATV users should be extremely troubling to anybody concerned about privacy. That Providence is promoting the use of an anonymous tip line to report any ATV or dirt bike possession, even on a private residence or in a private garage, only enhances these surveillance concerns.”
In Johnston, report illegal vehicle incidents by calling 401-231-8100; in Cranston, call 401-942-2211; and in Providence, call the city’s new dedicated ATV Tip Line 401-680-TATV (8288) and email ATVtips@providenceri.gov to “anonymously report any non-emergency information they have about ATVs being illegally driven or stored.”
Polisena promised Johnston would be a dedicated partner to neighboring communities in the effort to keep off-road vehicles off the region’s roads.
“I will provide our police department, Mayor Smiley and (Cranston) Mayor (Ken) Hopkins whatever tools are needed to help keep these individuals off our streets,” Polisena said. “There is absolutely no sanctuary for them in Johnston and there will never be under my administration.”
Warwick Police Chief Col. Bradford Connor did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
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