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Dirt bikers are pictured on Gwynns Falls Parkway.
Dirt bikers are pictured on Gwynns Falls Parkway. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

The intersection of North Charles Street and North Avenue is one of the busiest in Baltimore, and lots of men and women, some of them elderly and some of them in wheelchairs, wait there on the sidewalk for northbound buses. So, one day a few weeks ago, it was shocking to see a young man on a dirt bike suddenly cruise past pedestrians before slipping off the sidewalk and joining his free-wheeling buddies in the street.

In moments like that, any and all understanding of the dirt bike thing in Baltimore goes south. Even the impressive research of Johns Hopkins sociologists, who have found great value in young adults having an "identity project" to launch a successful life, seems suddenly irrelevant — it's not, and I'll explain later — when you consider the risk to public safety posed by this outlaw "hobby."

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Police Commissioner Kevin Davis stepped deeper into the Baltimore dirt bike issue last week when he announced the establishment of a no-chase dirt bike squad to stop the illegal riders, some of whom, Davis said, are "gun-toting criminals who travel throughout the city recklessly, lawlessly and with impunity."

We immediately heard some pushback from Steven Burden, a longtime dirt biker who found Davis' comments offensive and told Sun reporter Ian Duncan that the new enforcement effort would further alienate bikers from police. "To make a statement like that, being the top cop in Baltimore, that's really reckless," Burden said. "I don't sugarcoat. 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."

Burden is wrong about Davis. The commissioner and his staff presented their reasons to suspect that some dirt bike riders are carrying guns. What do we expect the police to do, take a pass? The city is in the midst of a violent crime crisis, most of it caused by guys with guns. Police have made hundreds of arrests and confiscated hundreds of handguns in an effort to curb the violence.

What's "reckless" are the choices that some dirt bikers make when they go for a ride anywhere near people — people in cars, people on sidewalks. I agree: We should not sugarcoat this. Dirt bikers on the streets and sidewalks of Baltimore are a nuisance and a threat to safety — theirs and that of bystanders.

Other police commissioners might have it tougher right now — certainly Dallas' David Brown does, as he prepares for the funerals of officers gunned down by a sniper Thursday night — but Davis is contending with a long, depressing streak of everyday violence, lingering tensions from last year's unrest and back-to-back trials of police officers charged in connection with Freddie Gray's arrest and death. Given all that, Davis probably could have let the dirt bike thing slide.

Taking this on takes some brass. It puts the commissioner and his officers in the middle of a thorny issue at a time of intensified scrutiny of police activities. It comes during an uphill struggle to make Baltimore a safer, less-divided city that provides greater opportunity for more of its citizens.

Knock the police for excessive force, for being callous and inconsiderate, for taking too long to respond to a report of a crime. Don't knock them for trying to enforce the law.

But there's more to this than law enforcement.

Steven Burden is correct about the value of a dirt bike as a means of "escape" for the young man who rides one. With that, he's pretty much on the same page with Hopkins researchers. (Or maybe they just confirmed something he knew all along.)

A couple of years ago, the researchers wrapped up a decade-long study of 150 African-American children who grew up in some form of public housing in the 1990s. The researchers came across something unexpected: Having an "identity project" — a hobby or keen interest in the arts, being involved in a club or volunteer activity — made a huge difference in a kid's success during adolescence and the transition to adulthood.

"It was a means of survival, a spark to ignite grit in the face of daunting neighborhood violence, underperforming schools and disadvantaged home lives," says Stefanie DeLuca, Hopkins sociologist and one of the study's authors.

So there's value in young men having dirt bikes as their "identity project."

We should help them organize to acquire land and build a dirt bike park somewhere on the west side. City officials need to find one or two leaders — Burden is already involved in the effort — to lead the riders into a new venue. In the meantime, we close down the Highway To Nowhere (I-70 on the west side) once a month, and let the bikers do their thing there, legally. They'll draw a crowd. They might draw ESPN and sponsorship to help pay for their new park, off the streets and off the sidewalks.

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