PROVIDENCE — Early last year, dirt bikers beat up a father in front of his child and ran over his ankle because he told them not to ride in Neutaconkanut Park in Silver Lake. Last week, dirt bikers dragged a mother out of her car on Smith Hill and punched her for honking at them at a traffic light.
In the 18 months between those incidents, police have fielded more than 2,600 calls from people complaining about illegal dirt bikes and ATV riders all over the city.
A review of data from the Providence Police Department going back to January 2020 shows every neighborhood is plagued by illegal riders, at all hours, any day of the week, with an average of seven calls to police per day. So far this year, there have been more calls to police about illegal riders than in all of 2020.
The City Council held an emergency meeting Tuesday evening to discuss how to address violent crime and enforce the 2015 city ordinance banning off-road vehicles, including all-terrain vehicles and motorized dirt bikes. But Providence chief Colonel Hugh T. Clements Jr. said, “There is no magic solution on ATVs.”
Providence does not have a no-chase policy, but does have a pursuit policy. Yet Clements said officers who decide to pursue a rider will be presented with “a lot of risks.”
“And no one wants to be the next officer — or two — that acts in an aggressive manner,” he said.
This isn’t just a Providence problem — it’s an issue for many municipalities across the country that are trying to balance how to stop the riders without causing accidents. But it has become particularly acute in Providence, where some recent ATV gatherings have turned violent.
The bikers swarm down the main routes of the city, such as Broad Street and Elmwood Avenue, South Water Street, and Reservoir Avenue. They weave in and out of traffic, ride on the sidewalks and down one-way streets, tear up the grassy lawns at Roger Williams Park, and weave around frightened or annoyed pedestrians.
They record their wheelies and traffic-stopping ride-outs with GoPro cameras mounted on their helmets and post their videos on their YouTube channels, bragging about their stunts, and mocking the police and motorists they pass. Most of them are males, as young as 14 and as old as 58, some coming in from other cities and states to ride in Providence.
And the city has had enough.
“I think they have to take the handcuffs off the police and let them do their job,” says real estate developer and former mayor Joseph Paolino Jr., whose nearly empty shopping plaza on Reservoir Avenue is a gathering place for riders of ATVs and dirt bikes. “Arrest these people, take these ATVs and throw them away.”
The plaza has the most complaints about ATVs and dirt bikes of any place in the city, called in by people living nearby, said Police Commander Thomas Verdi. The riders go behind the former Stop & Shop supermarket, dumping debris, and burning up the pavement. Five people were shot there on Aug. 1.
Paolino said Ward 8 Councilman James Taylor spoke to him last week about securing the property, so he’ll add cameras and fencing. “It’s costing me a fortune,” Paolino said. “It’s a shame I have to do it.”
The second-most complaints are coming from Roger Williams Park, where the Police Department has put up signs warning that off-road vehicles aren’t allowed.
The illegal riders have torn up the grass, sped and weaved around the pedestrian walkways, popped wheelies on Elmwood Avenue, and disrupted events in the park.
Jeremy Goodman, the executive director of Roger Williams Park Zoo, wrote in March to Councilman Mike Correia about the damage the bikers had caused in the park.
“Riders of these vehicles have often tried to use the zoo parking lots as a playground causing damage, disrupting guests, and necessitating us to employ extra security,” Goodman wrote. “This year many of our guests attending the Jack-o-Lantern spectacular were scared away during the chaotic rally that the riders of these vehicles staged, and we seriously considered canceling the event that night for everyone’s safety.”
Goodman was prompted to write after Mayor Jorge O. Elorza floated an initiative to legalize ATVs and dirt bikes, to require that they are registered and insured, and therefore would be used responsibly. Goodman urged Correia not to support it.
Councilman Taylor said the illegal riders are terrorizing the city.
“They say that they want a place to ride, and I understand that … But as time goes on, I don’t think they want that anymore. They’re going to get bored and take over the streets again,” Taylor said Monday. “Besides, half of them don’t have trailers or trucks, so they’d have to ride their ATVs to where they would go to ride them anyway. We’re not getting anywhere.”
In 2015, the Providence City Council passed an ordinance to ban off-road vehicles, and then two years later, passed another ordinance to allow police to confiscate and destroy them. Since then, the city has destroyed more than 200 off-road vehicles, Verdi said.
That’s just a small number of what’s reported to be on the road. Callers often see dozens of riders at a time.
Last October, police were monitoring a ride-out of about 200 ATVs and motorbikes when a Middletown man on an unregistered scooter veered onto a side street and crashed into a wall. An officer who was following the rider hit a stop sign, which hit the rider’s helmet. The officer, Kyle Endres, was cleared in an investigation; the rider, 24-year-old Jhamal Gonsalves, is recovering from a head injury, and his family has filed a federal lawsuit against the police.
In March, Cranston Mayor Kenneth Hopkins and Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza announced they were creating a task force to help both police departments share resources and information.
Cranston Police Colonel Michael Winquist said later that “quite honestly, after the press conference and pushing hard on enforcement, the issue has practically disappeared in Cranston.”
There have been three sting operations in Providence so far this year, using 20 to 35 officers, in uniform and plainclothes, going out for several hours searching for riders, Verdi said. They use data to track where the riders are likely to appear and when, and the plainclothes officers radio their locations, he said.
Then they follow the riders until there’s an opportunity to stop and surround them, cite or arrest them, and seize their vehicles. Officers do not chase, and they do not follow the bikers when they go the wrong way down a one-way street, for example.
The police swiftly caught the dirt biker, a Seekonk man, who assaulted the father in Neutaconkanut Park last February, and charged a North Providence woman with assaulting the mother driving in Smith Hill last week. Some residents are urging police to take stronger action against all illegal riders.
“In Cranston and Johnston, police and mayors there don’t put up with it,” Taylor said. “But the word on the street is that if you have a dirt bike, you can come and get away with it in Providence.”