- Associated Press - Monday, April 18, 2016

NEW LONDON, Conn. (AP) - It was just before midnight on Aug. 12, 2013, warmth still hanging in the air, when Katherine Goulart’s attention shifted from her windshield to her passenger side window, a man’s sandy boot threatening to come straight through.

It wasn’t the first time she’d seen dirt bikers in the city, but it was the first time she thought she might die at their hands.

“Never in my life have I felt so in fear for my life,” Goulart wrote in an Aug. 14, 2013, letter to the City Council detailing the harrowing events of the night.

When two dirt bikes without headlights blew past an Elm Street stop sign that night, nearly colliding with the hood of Goulart’s car, she decided to follow them at a distance in hopes of getting their addresses.

It wasn’t long before the bikers, seemingly aware of what Goulart was doing, had blocked her path forward as a third bike came up from behind.

What followed was a chase that “felt as if it went on forever,” leading the petrified Goulart and her passenger from Elm Street to Route 32 in Quaker Hill as the bikers beat on Goulart’s car and shouted expletives, at one point leaving the sandy boot print she’d later find on the car window.

In the more than two years since Goulart’s encounter, police in New London and Waterford said they’ve made notable progress but have struggled to fully contain the riders perched atop four-wheelers, dirt bikes and other not-street-legal vehicles.

In Connecticut, even registered ATVs can only be on public highways for as long as it takes them to safely cross the highways at a 90-degree angle.

Dirt bikes with engine sizes greater than 50cc can be registered as motorcycles, but because that requires the bikes and riders to meet a host of requirements, police said the bikes often aren’t registered.

The riders, Waterford Police Chief Brett Mahoney said, have become increasingly bold in the past five years, popping wheelies and driving the wrong way down busy streets and attempting to engage the police in pursuit.

The issue is not unique to southeastern Connecticut.

Less than two weeks ago, police in Washington, D.C., announced a crackdown on dirt bike and ATV riders, releasing surveillance images of 245 persons of interest and offering $250 rewards for fruitful tips.

Indeed, a search of “bikelife” on YouTube - or, similarly, #bikelife on other social media platforms - spawns thousands of videos and photos of riders from Bridgeport to Oakland, Calif., pulling stunts and weaving in and out of traffic.

Add “New London” or “860” to the search and similar scenes emerge, often featuring first-person views chock full of masked riders speeding by familiar landmarks.

Mahoney said bringing prosecution is not as simple as identifying the people behind the usernames, though.

“That’s fine that ‘aboogie’ puts his stuff up on YouTube. But can I tell, looking at the back of him with his helmet on doing a wheelie down Colman Street, that that’s the guy who posted the video?” Mahoney asked. “It’s not enough proof for us.”

A policy held by police departments across the state that officers shouldn’t engage in pursuit over a motor vehicle violation also complicates the situation, New London Deputy Chief Peter Reichard said.

“The hardest part is safely apprehending” the offenders, Reichard said. “We’re not going to put anyone else’s lives in jeopardy - officers, the public, the person on the bike who will engage in a chase - to make an arrest.”

Reichard called the process a “give-and-take.”

“We have to look at everything as a whole and say, ‘How much time do we spend on this?’” Reichard said. “If we spend a lot of time going after the kids on quads and ATVs, we’re taking away from spending time in places where we know there are narcotic sales and occasional street violence.”

Still, he said, New London police have been doing all they can to stop the erratic and illegal operators.

In 2013, records show there were 260 calls related to dirt bikes, mopeds, quads, four-wheelers, ATVs and the like.

In 2014, the number of calls was 200. By 2015, it had dwindled to just more than 70.

Waterford police, because their system doesn’t have a specific drop-down field to capture what type of vehicle was involved in a call, declined to provide similar data.

Spanning from Chester Street and Crystal Avenue all the way down to Stuart Avenue, the majority of New London’s calls came in the summer time. Records show officers responded to many of them in mere minutes.

“What we’re getting is across the city,” Reichard pointed out. “I don’t think there’s a typical route.”

Most of the calls aren’t as intense as what Goulart reported back in August 2013.

Red dirt bike with a black-masked rider going the wrong way in traffic near Cape Ann Court, one caller advised in April 2013.

Dirt bikers doing wheelies on Niles Hill Road and laughing, another caller told police in October last year.

With a few exceptions - including when a 20-year-old man kicked a Waterford police officer in the chest in August 2013 while riding on the back of a fleeing dirt bike - police in both municipalities said most of the calls from 2013 through 2015 didn’t end with accidents or injuries.

Over the course of those three years, New London police arrested 13 people in connection to the illegal riding and cited almost 20 more - something Reichard said may have played a role in the declining number of calls about the bikes and ATVs.

Mahoney said it’s hard to put a finger on why criminal activity stops, but acknowledged that jail time can help.

“It’s an amorphous group,” Mahoney said of the people who ride the street-illegal vehicles around town. “Some get in, some get out. Some grow up, some don’t.”

Goulart, speaking by phone, said at first she was disappointed with the response she got from New London police - they had an our-hands-are-tied kind of reaction, she said.

“But overall, I’m pleased with how they handled it,” she said. “Certainly with them being understaffed and having so many other issues in New London, it is difficult to catch these guys.”

Mahoney said police understand the riders are a “total nuisance” and that people see the bikes and ATVs as a quality-of-life issue and a hazard.

“Believe me,” Mahoney said, “I get as frustrated as anybody else does, and so do our officers.”


Information from: The Day, https://www.theday.com

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