As dirt bikers play cat-and-mouse game with Baltimore police, officials seek a lasting solution

In post-Freddie Gray Baltimore, official talk of dirt bikers turns to finding a place they can ride.

The roaring crowd of dirt bikes and spectators that has long filled Druid Hill Park on Sunday evenings was replaced for the second straight week with police cruisers and traffic cones — a temporary tactic aimed at keeping the riders from performing their illegal ritual on Reisterstown Road.

But as darkness fell Sunday night, the sounds of engines still could be heard in the distance, and a group of women — friends of the riders — said they'd just gone elsewhere to ride, while waiting for police to pull out so they could reclaim their territory.

For Baltimore officials, the dirt bikers who swarm the city's streets — popping wheelies, weaving through traffic, riding on sidewalks and over medians — are a decades-old challenge. But since the death of Freddie Gray, police have focused on improving relations with the community, and the conversation has pivoted from merely stopping the bikers to finding them somewhere else to ride.

Officials have considered potential venues — include Pimlico Race Course, local parks or other off-road areas — but there has been no agreement on a permanent solution.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has reached out to residents, dirt bikers, officials and "others who have a stake in this issue," according to spokesman Howard Libit.

"The goal is to see if a solution can be found that provides a safe, responsible outlet for dirt bike riders while respecting the concerns and rights of residents who live in communities where the rides tend to be concentrated," Libit said.

The mayor and police officials have called for a "dialogue," but declined to say whether they have met with the riders.

Dyneesha Davis, 19, a regular at the Sunday night "Wheel Deal," is a sometime rider who is saving up to buy a bike. She said the cat-and-mouse game between police and bikers will continue until the activity is legalized or the city finds a place to allow it.

"The only alternative is to give them somewhere to ride," said Davis.

But she worries the city will try to put restrictions on the riders if the activity were moved to, say, Pimlico.

"Are they going to have the fans sitting in the seats?" she asked. "Are they going to charge us?"

For the past two weeks, police have closed six lanes in the 3300 block of Reisterstown Road, bringing traffic down to one lane in each direction, and inundated the area with officers to keep the bikers away.

They're also trying to keep the crowd away.

"[The bikers] were out here without an audience last week," police spokesman T.J. Smith said on Sunday. "That's part of our strategy as well, to deter those people."

But he said the current fix — bottlenecking traffic and eliminating the crowd — isn't permanent.

"It's going to be ongoing," he said. "It's not going to be an overnight solution."

The dirt bikes present a unique and difficult challenge for Baltimore. Officials outlawed the activity on city streets in 2000 after two riders were killed in a crash, but the activity persists. This year, dirt bike hit-and-runs have killed a 24-year-old woman in Cold Spring in May and critically injured a 5-year-old boy in Cherry Hill in June.

Their presence divides the city. To some, the riders are a reckless and terrifying presence on the road. To others, they're athletes choosing a productive and entertaining alternative to the drugs and violence that plague the city's streets.

One thing's certain: The dirt bikes have become a part of the city's culture. Some riders have collected thousands of followers on their Instagram pages, where they post photos and video clips of their high-speed escapades.

For years, a large crowd has gathered on Sunday afternoons on the sidewalk and in the parking lot of HipHop Fish & Chicken to watch in person as the dirt bikers, four-wheelers and bicyclists ride up and down Reisterstown Road.

Police have all but given up trying to catch and arrest the dirt bikers — a difficult and dangerous proposition because the riders are nimble and can speed through tight alleys and across grass and sidewalks. Instead, officers have issued tickets to cars parked in the area in the hope of dispersing the riders' audience.

Recently, tensions between police and the dirt bike community have risen. In a confrontation two weeks ago, people threw rocks at officers as they confiscated a bike, prompting one officer to draw his gun and wave it at the crowd. The officer was placed on administrative duty, police said.

Distrust between the community and police was already high after Gray's death in April. The 25-year-old Baltimore man suffered a severe spinal cord injury in police custody. His death prompted protests against police brutality; on the day he was buried, the city erupted in riots.

Charis E. Kubrin, a professor of criminology at the University of California, Irvine, said finding the bikers somewhere else to ride would improve perceptions of the police.

"Seeing the two groups come together and find a solution — isn't that symbolically powerful, especially in this day and context?" she asked. "I'm sure it's much easier said than done. But the crux of it is police-community relationships."

Smith, the police spokesman, called that analysis "spot-on."

"Many of these riders are young people from the communities affected by the issues we're trying to bridge the gap on," he said. "It's an opportunity to reach some of the people who have some of the loudest voices."

Kubrin compared Baltimore's challenge to the problem other cities have with skateboarders riding at malls, on streets and in other public areas. Officials began to build skate parks, and while some skaters initially greeted them with skepticism, they quickly gained popularity.

Some worry that the dirt bikers prefer the thrill of riding in the streets.

Kubrin said the same was true for skateboarders, but giving them input on what they want in a new space could serve to alleviate that issue.

"Maybe initially it's not that cool," she said. "But maybe, over time, it gets institutionalized as the place where you do this."

Latasha Atkinson, 36, who lives on nearby Wichita Avenue, is one of many neighbors who want the dirt bikers gone.

The bikers drive the wrong way up her street and on the sidewalks and medians, she said, and the crowd blocking the sidewalk is a hassle when she's walking home from work in the evening.

Sleeping with the engines roaring outside her window? Forget about it, Atkinson said.

"We don't like it," she said. "We're not going to tolerate it. It has to stop."

But not everyone would be happy to see them go elsewhere.

Hamzah Qafisheh, 29, an employee at HipHop Chicken & Fish, said the restaurant serves more than 2,000 meals on Sundays when the dirt bikers are outside.

With the police bringing traffic to one lane on both sides of Reisterstown Road and keeping people from parking anywhere near the block, only about a dozen people loitered in the fast-food joint.

"It's a big difference," he said. "It's a lot of business [lost] for us."

In Southern California, Kubrin said, some complained when day laborers — many of them undocumented immigrants — loitered near their homes and offices each morning waiting for employers to take them to their job sites.

Finding the laborers somewhere else to wait hasn't solve the country's immigration problems, she said. But it's a concrete, attainable step forward.

Like the day laborers, Kubrin said, the dirt bikers riding lawlessly through the streets are a symptom of a larger issue: a disconnect between citizens and police.

Finding a solution, she said, "will have repercussions beyond dirt bikes. It will encourage positive relations between the community and police."

cmcampbell@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cmcampbell6

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Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of people who were struck and killed by dirt bikes this year in Baltimore. A 24-year-old woman was killed in Cold Spring in May, and a 5-year-old boy was critically injured in Cherry Hill in June.

The Sun regrets the error.

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