Patrick J. Lowery Jr., Sergeant, Kent, Washington, Police Department
mooth, wide boulevards make Kent, Washington, a popular place for illegal street racers to gather at night. Illegal street racing in Kent has brought with it an increase in criminal behavior and collisions. Crashes during these events have injured or killed spectators and participants and caused considerable property damage.
In 2001 two passengers in a vehicle involved in an illegal street race died after the vehicle's driver lost control at a high speed and the vehicle rolled over several times. A motorcyclist was killed when he struck a vehicle that turned in front of his own as he rode with his front wheel off the ground in front of a crowd of spectators.
Trespassing, vandalism, theft, and other criminal activity have accompanied street racing. Vehicles popular among street racers, such as Hondas, Toyotas, Nissans, and Acuras, are stolen for their equipment. Stolen cars have been found stripped of parts that were later recovered from vehicles involved in street racing.
The Solution: The Crash Program
Recognizing that illegal street racing constituted a dangerous and costly problem, the Kent Police Department committed itself to reducing illegal street racing within its borders. The department partnered with state and local law enforcement agencies, private property owners, local businesses, and the insurance industry to develop a high-profile enforcement action plan known as Curb Racing and Achieve Safer Highways, or Crash.
Here's how it works: Uniformed and plainclothes patrol officers covertly target racing areas and identify racing events in progress. Once these events are identified, uniformed officers are called in to close off access from the areas and deal with the participants.
Persons found operating vehicles in violation of the Washington State Motor Vehicle Traffic Code are contacted and, when appropriate, cited or arrested. Persons identified as trespassers on private property are contacted and cited. Vehicles found abandoned on public roads in areas designated as tow-away zones are impounded. Vehicles operated by drivers whose licenses have been suspended or revoked are also impounded. Vehicles found abandoned on private property are towed when the property owner and the police department have endorsed towing and trespass agreements. Enhancements to the program have been funded through existing traffic safety grants, and the Kent Police Department invited other local police agencies to help identify and target racing sites throughout the region.
Because the race locations move to different areas at the south end of King County, there are times each night when specific sites are unoccupied. During the first phase of this operation, uniformed officers move into identified staging spots near the racing areas but out of open view. As the racing traffic starts to enter these areas, plainclothes officers in unmarked vehicles also move in. They mill about in the crowds and sometimes use video cameras to capture the racing action.
|Photographs courtesy Kent Police Department|
These units also record and relay information regarding vehicle licenses and descriptions, and descriptions of drivers and starters involved in illegal racing. Once police observe and record specific violations or recognize that the race crowd is about to move to another area, these undercover officers notify the operations commander.
At that time, police officers and vehicles are dispatched from staging areas to points of containment identified beforehand. Inside the racing area, private properties are closed to exiting traffic. Access from the racing area is controlled using traffic funneling. Exit routes are identified and staffed by uniformed patrol officers and marked vehicles. Information related to the identity of these vehicles and drivers for whom probable cause exists for a reckless racing, reckless endangerment, or other criminal charges is relayed from the witnessing officers to those staffing the exit points.
As vehicles approach along these routes, attending officers contact and detain wanted persons and their vehicles. Drivers and starters for the racing events are arrested. Vehicle occupants are deemed to be witnesses only and when appropriate are identified and released for that purpose unless other criminal violations are identified.
Other exiting traffic is observed for traffic violations. Where violations are observed, vehicles and their drivers are contacted and enforcement action taken. If no violations are found, the driver of a vehicle is given a color-coded tag. Upon reaching the intersection and displaying the tag, the driver is waved through. An officer who is also a state-certified drug recognition expert (DRE) is on hand to evaluate any driver or minor contacted and believed to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs or both.
The final phase of this process starts once the racing site has been cleared. All vehicles left unattended on a public roadway that is marked as a tow-away zone are immediately impounded. Additionally, tow companies previously identified by the property owner remove any vehicles left unattended on private property. Before nightly enforcement actions, area property owners are contacted to identify those vehicles that are present by permission. Those vehicles remain in their parked locations.
The idea behind the Kent antiracing plan is to define the specifics of the enforcement effort as well as its goals. The Kent Police Department used the following protocol in developing its plan:
- Anticipate where illegal street racing is likely to take place by identifying locations where racers have raced before and others where accessibility and road configurations and conditions could attract racers.
- Identify owners of all properties in or around the racing areas and identify boundaries of each property.
- Work with private property owners to limit access to their properties during nonbusiness hours. Street racers and their spectators like to stay out of public view, so they gravitate toward business and industrial areas normally vacant at night. Demonstrate to private property owners how to limit the number of open access points onto their properties at night to increase the level of security and make the location less attractive to racers. Owners can reduce access by installing gates and fences or by repositioning equipment to block entry; owners must leave at least two access routes available for police and fire department access.
- Secure trespass agreements with each private property owner. Such agreements give the police agency permission to act as the agent of the property owner for the purposes of identifying and enforcing trespass problems. Such agreements should also authorize the agency to impound vehicles illegally parked or abandoned on the property. As a part of this tow authorization, the property owner must enter into a towing contract with a readily accessed tow company. The property owner and the police must also agree on a method of identifying authorized vehicles on the property.
- Prohibit nighttime parking on public properties and roadways in the race area to discourage race spectators from congregating along roadsides or in public parking areas during the prime racing hours. This parking prohibition should also include a posted tow-away clause.
Legal Issues and Considerations
Recognizing that enforcement using traditional patrol methods and existing ordinances could have a substantial impact on illegal racing, the Kent Police Department examined a variety of legal issues. These included a needs assessment pertaining to existing statutes for enforcement of racing-related crimes, the potential for more specific laws to further address racing issues, and procedural techniques involved in enforcement. This analysis produced a number of changes, including the following.
Vigorous enforcement of all racing-related violations of law: The department adopted and publicized a policy of zero-tolerance for racing-related violations. The policy has gained support from the public, the media, and the courts. Racing participants also recognize that violations subject to a zero-tolerance policy can carry much higher permanent sanctions. The Kent Police Department considered the following charges for racing participants and spectators:
- Criminal trespass (for racing spectators)
- Reckless driving/racing
- Driving with a suspended or revoked license
- Reckless endangerment (for race starters)
- Alcohol- and drug-related charges
- Malicious mischief
Mandatory arrest and booking for criminal violations: While consideration must be given to available jail space, nothing has quite the impact on a person as incarceration. Alternatively, administrative bookings (book and release) save jail space and time. Consideration must also be given to the number of persons contacted. Since trespass situations generally involve a large number of persons, transporting them from the scene works best when proper staffing is arranged in advance. If transport is not available, departments may wish to consider simple cite-and-release procedures for these violations.
Impoundment of any vehicle for which there is lawful authority: Another enforcement tool that makes an impact on racers is vehicle impoundment. Impoundment demonstrates the community's commitment to eliminating this dangerous problem. This should apply to all in-custody drivers as well as those driving with suspended licenses or while under the influence of alcohol where agency policies permit it. It should also include any car left blocking any public roadway.
Streamlining paperwork for the officer: With the help of prosecutors, the Kent Police Department wrote a racing-related narrative that it prints directly on the back of special criminal citations. The officer writing the citation has to provide only names, dates, times, and statements of each accused, as in this example:
On 07/21/2001 at approximately 0100 hrs I responded to a complaint of several vehicles gathering and racing in the eastern parking lot of the Northwest Corporate Park in Kent. The entire complex is clearly posted with no trespassing signs (see examples below), and the property owner has signed an enforcement agreement with the City of Kent Police Department.
As other officers and I arrived on location, a large number of vehicles were seen leaving the complex. At the direction of the patrol supervisor we blocked off the exits and began contacting the drivers of each vehicle. This driver was identified by a Washington State driver's license. He was identified as John Doe. When asked why he was there at 0100 hrs when none of the businesses were open to the public, the driver offered no excuse. He was advised of the pending criminal citation and released at the scene.
Legislate prohibition of persons from race areas and activities: In 2001 the Kent City Council codified a measure that prohibits persons previously contacted for racing-related crimes from being present in identified race areas. Known as Soar (Stay Out of Areas of Racing), this law results in a gross misdemeanor violation when a person previously served with a Soar order is caught within a posted race area as identified within the order. Violation of the order allows for the immediate and unconditional arrest of the violator. Soar areas and time frames are based upon historical data gathered from previous enforcement efforts and written into the law. The racing areas are identified on large signs along city streets and are written into the order of any person served.
Dealing with juveniles: Processing juveniles can slow down the enforcement process. The Kent Police Department determined that juveniles should be processed as adults for traffic-related offenses when Washington law does not require that their age be considered. For non-traffic matters, however, such classification becomes discretionary based upon agency policy. The Kent Police Department employs a process including documentation (field interview reports) and parental notification. Juveniles account for only a small percentage of racers and spectators contacted by the police.
Operations Planning and Deployment
Law enforcement agencies considering similar racing-related enforcement programs should heed the following tips:
- Have sufficient resources in place. The success of this program is based upon having enough officers regularly available to respond to illegal street racing activities. Dedicated race patrol teams must be deployed each weekend so that racers and spectators will anticipate their presence and avoid those identified patrol areas.
- Employ undercover officers and vehicles. The communications and surveillance techniques employed by racing groups are quite sophisticated. Use of undercover officers is essential to provide timely and accurate tracking of racing groups, as well to identify their size and activities. This is also extremely valuable in developing detailed information about the persons and vehicles involved in illegal racing. It is important that police officers act consistently when dealing with racers. These groups are very suspicious of strangers.
- Videotape and or photograph the racing activities. This will serve a variety of interests, including court presentation and documentation, public education, and intelligence gathering.
- Develop interagency enforcement teams. A multiagency task force can follow the racers as they move between and among several jurisdictions. In Washington State, this type of procedure is authorized under the Mutual Police Powers Act. Participating agencies should handle all reports generated within their jurisdictions. In multiagency efforts, police actions that require reports beyond basic citations or summonses should be completed by the agency where the enforcement action occurs. This simplifies documentation and makes sure that charges are processed using a procedure familiar to the local prosecutor and court.
- Work with the media to keep the problem in the public eye. The public usually has little or no familiarity with the problem of illegal street racing because it occurs long after most people have gone to bed and far from residential areas. Use print, radio, and television media to make the public aware of the problem and gain its support for enforcement strategies. Distribute press releases after each enforcement effort, highlighting the results and any unusual events. Invite media representatives to observe an enforcement action firsthand.
- Develop an alternative site for street racing. Working with the management of Seattle International Raceway, the Kent Police Department has helped develop a program known as Street Legal Drags. On Wednesday nights in spring and summer, races are conducted on a drag strip sanction by the National Hot Rod Association. Safety is the first priority. Before participating, each race participant is required to submit his vehicle for a safety inspection. A weekly feature of Street Legal Drags is the popular Beat the Heat race, where racers can compete against two race cars owned and operated by the Kent Police Department.
- Make Internet contact. Street racing groups run several Web sites on which they detail past and future events, host chat rooms, and maintain public message boards. Police officers have begun communicating with racers and their spectators through some of those sites, and the department's own Web site, www.ci.kent.wa.us/Police, offers information about the Crash program. ♦