As warmer weather comes to Baltimore, so do the dirt bikes — and police enforcement.
Under new commissioner Michael Harrison, the department’s seasonal dirt bike violators task force will continue to target areas known for street riding, which the department says is illegal and unsafe.
“It’s a public safety risk,” said Col. Richard Worley, the department’s chief of patrol. Riders, other drivers and pedestrians are at risk, he said.
He noted that riders often lack helmets and headlights. They often ride in groups, performing tricks alongside other traffic. Large numbers of bikes and crowds typically bring complaints from nearby residents.
Cities across the country have also had to confront dirt bikes, including in New Orleans where Harrison previously served as the police superintendent. Police there arrested more than a dozen riders on dirt bikes and ATVs in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras last year, according to reports.
But advocates in Baltimore say the sport is a part of the city’s culture that should be preserved.
Since the 1980s, dirt bikes have been banned on most public property in Maryland, but dirt bike culture has been an outlet for many youths in the city. Baltimore’s dirt biking culture was featured in the acclaimed documentary "12 O'clock Boys."
Last fall, a movie drama abut dirt bikes co-written by Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”) was filming in Baltimore.
“I believe we have to address it from both standpoints,” said Councilman Leon F. Pinkett III. Not only is there a need for enforcement, “but we also need to be thinking about how we make this a positive activity.”
In 2017, former Mayor Catherine Pugh formed a task force that included politicians and community members to discuss options, including the long-considered idea of a local dirt bike park. The task force looked at other cities, including Cleveland, which began building a dirt bike park but later scrapped the plan, according to reports. Baltimore has not moved forward on any plans to build a park.
A recent report evaluating youth diversion in the city has recommended that the city continue considerations to build a dirt bike park, where youths can enjoy the sport legally. A survey of youths found that several became involved in the juvenile justice system because of incidents involving dirt bikes.
Since 2016, police have seized more than 400 dirt bikes, the department said.
Worley said the bikes have also led to the seizure of eight handguns. He said dirt bikes were also used by two suspects fleeing a recent homicide but could not provide additional details on the case.
Department policy does not permit officers to chase the bikes, but officers in the unit will be looking for stopped bikes, Worley said. The department follows dirt bikes using the police helicopter and identifies drivers using the city’s CitiWatch cameras and surveillance videos from private businesses. The officers will be dispatched to areas that see more dirt bike activity, such as the Northwest District, and weekends.
Brittany Young remembers Sundays in West Baltimore as a child, when she’d hear the distinct buzzing and revving of engines. It was the city’s signature soundtrack for the summer, a sound that said: It was dirt bike season.