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Baltimore police launch dirt bike task force

Police say dirt bike riders have ties to gun crime as they step up investigations.

Baltimore police announced the creation of a four-officer dirt bike task force Thursday, arguing that the riders are more than just a dangerous nuisance on city streets and have links to gun crime.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis called the riders "gun-toting criminals who travel throughout the city recklessly, lawlessly and with impunity."

The task force is charged with investigating any crime connected to dirt bikes, law enforcement officials said. The detectives, who have experience investigating car thefts, will seek to bring charges for riding the bikes — which in itself is illegal in the city — and associated crimes like destruction of property or gun offenses. Officers also will try to seize bikes they find.

Officers are not allowed to chase dirt bikes through the streets, and that policy remains unchanged, Davis said. So officials want people to call or text police with tips about where investigators can find stashed bikes and fueling locations.

The task force has been working for two weeks and has seized several guns, Davis said.

Late last month, police arrested a 27-year-old man on gun charges after making an effort to catch dirt bike riders who were getting fuel at a gas station next to Carroll Park. Antonio Woods, who police said was driving a trail car to help dirt bike riders, remains jailed without bail and is facing firearms charges.

At a news conference Thursday, Davis singled out another target for the task force: a 23-year-old man named Jamar Beckford who investigators say is shown on a surveillance video sitting on a dirt bike while cleaning fingerprints off rounds of ammunition before loading them into a handgun. Police have a warrant for Beckford's arrest, Davis said.

"He just inserted the magazine into the gun. He's going to stick it in his pocket, and he's ready to go hurt somebody in Baltimore," Davis said as the surveillance footage played on a screen beside him.

Steven Burden, a longtime dirt bike rider who founded the riding group Wildout Wheelie Boyz, called the commissioner's efforts to tie the bikers to gun crime offensive, and said it will only serve to alienate them from police.

"To make a statement like that being the top cop in Baltimore, that's really reckless," Burden said. "I don't sugar coat. Dirt bike riding is illegal; it's wrong. But it's better than what these kids could be doing.

"It allows these kids to escape their reality for a little bit of time."

Police have struggled for years to come up with a strategy for how to deal with the bikers, who ride through the city in large groups, thrilling some and terrifying others.

In 2013, police provided email address for people to send in tips about crimes associated with the bikes. On weekends, officers have tried to limit the flow of traffic at popular dirt biking spots in hopes of slowing down the riders.

Burden has been working with council members looking to build a dedicated dirt bike park, and others have suggested blocking off sections of the road just for the dirt bikers to use on certain days.

But for the most part, the illegal rides appear to have continued unabated, frustrating some elected officials. Davis said his goal now is to stamp out illegal riding altogether.

"Not only have we seen the reckless driving, we have seen violence associated with dirt bike riders," Davis said

In some cases, the riders have seriously hurt or killed themselves and other people.

On a recent Friday night, a young woman was hit and badly hurt by a dirt bike rider as she walked to the Beyonce concert. The same weekend, a driver was beaten up and hospitalized after crashing into an ATV. In one incident, an off-duty detective was attacked.

Three riders died in crashes last year, police said. On Sunday, a man collided with a parked car, smashing his head through the driver's window. His friends scooped up his bike and left him there, Davis said. Police showed a picture of the man's blood splashed across the car.

But the bikers are glorified in YouTube videos for their daring riding and ability to pop wheelies, where the front of the bike is thrust vertically into the air. Crowds of people turn up to watch the riders. A young boy just starting out in the scene was the subject of a feature-length documentary in 2013.

As Davis excoriated the riders for the risks they pose, even he expressed admiration for their skill.

"There are significant talents associated with being able to ride a motorcycle in the manner that some of them ride their motorcycles," he said. "I don't doubt that for two seconds."

iduncan@baltsun.com

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