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Task force to crack down on ATV and car “takeovers” passes committee

A bill that would create a greater Hartford law enforcement task force to crack down on “illegal traffic activities on greater Hartford area roadways committed by organized groups of individuals riding motor vehicles, motorcycles, all-terrain vehicles and other vehicles,” was passed unanimously by the Public Safety and Security Committee earlier this month.

A recent incident in Simsbury saw upwards of 200 vehicles in a “takeover” during which drivers performed donuts in the Simsbury high school parking lot and evaded police, but the task force would also address large groups of ATV and dirt bike riders who often participate in “ride outs” through the streets of Hartford and neighboring towns.

Rep. Eleni Kavros-DeGraw, D-Avon, took to Twitter citing the Simsbury takeover as a reason to support creation of this task force, which, according to the bill, would consist of state and local law enforcement members from the greater Hartford area and could request and receive assistance from federal, state and local entities.

“Sadly, this is not a unique situation and the police need more support to stop the culprits faster,” Kavros-DeGraw wrote on Twitter regarding the Simsbury takeover. “Simsbury is not the only town that has seen this activity and unfortunately, additional help is necessary.”

Kavros-DeGraw wrote that she will be signing a letter to the Appropriations Committee “so that this can be adequately funded.” The bill is currently being analyzed by the Office of Fiscal Analysis to determine its cost.

Bristol Police in 2022 arrested two Massachusetts residents for a similar incident in June of 2022 when “several hundred” vehicles blocked an intersection to spin their tires and perform donuts before a crowd of onlookers, with police saying its part of a fad across the country and are recorded on video.

Similarly, groups of ATV and dirt bike riders during the warmer spring and summer months will often participate in ride outs, sometimes involving hundreds of off-road vehicles, through the streets of cities and nearby towns. The riders who often blow through streetlights and intersections to avoid being boxed in by local police, according to a source who has participated in ATV ride outs.

City officials have been taking a more pro-active stance in recent years. New Haven, Bridgeport, Waterbury and West Hartford have enacted laws meant to deter ATV riding, including banning the off-road vehicles from city streets.

Local police departments have stepped up monitoring on social media, deploying drones and making arrests when and where they can, but generally police follow a do not chase policy. The City of Hartford notably made a show of crushing 30 confiscated ATVs in 2020.

City and town officials say the riders are a source of public complaints and safety concerns, as well as violating traffic safety laws.

The task force bill received little in the way of public hearing testimony with support coming from Wethersfield Mayor Michael Rell and Rep. Amy Morrin Bello, D-Wethersfield.

“The town of Wethersfield, or any municipality in Connecticut, isn’t immune to illegal vehicular rallies,” Rell wrote in testimony. “Some groups are from towns outside of Greater Hartford and even from as far away as New York and Massachusetts. Most ATV’s and dirt bikes are stolen, unregistered and uninsured. Our local police do not engage in pursuit and will not chase ATVs and dirt bikes making it hard to hold those accountable for these events.”

“These activities are dangerous to innocent drivers, pedestrians and those taking part in the illegal activities. Just as important, these events affect the quality of life of the residents in the areas where these activities occur,” Rell continued.

However, the bill was opposed by the Connecticut ACLU who said that it would disproportionately affect Black and brown people through increased traffic enforcement.

“Because of the disparities in traffic enforcement, and especially because of the unreasonably high danger that traffic stops pose to drivers of color, the legislature should be very careful when making new traffic infractions,” wrote Jess Zaccagnino, policy counsel for ACLU-CT. “If there are already laws on the books which would cover new infractions, those existing laws should be used. If there is no mechanism for enforcing the contemplated behavior, the legislature should weigh very carefully whether the public safety needs to enforce the traffic regulation outweigh the public safety needs to limit police traffic stops.”

Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Commissioner James Rovella was asked about the task force during a public hearing by Rep. Gary Turco, D-Newington, who said the riders cause “a lot of havoc on the roadways, just not obeying laws.”

“Our local police departments are just not able to apprehend them or deter this activity,” Turco said. “It really scares residents, pedestrians and others driving their vehicles.”

Under the proposed law, Rovella may appoint a commanding officer or other personnel he “deems necessary to carry out the duties of the task force.”

Rovella, formerly of the Hartford Police Department, said he was familiar with the “menace and the disruption” caused by the gatherings but said that local police jurisdictional authority is the greatest hurdle to cracking down on riders who often cross municipal lines. 

“If you give them greater jurisdiction, you’re actually opening the door to all the misdemeanor crimes, all the motor vehicle statutes,” Rovella said, “which include those that are stolen for arrestable offence, and those that are not stolen, that all the motor vehicle violations that go with their mayhem.”

State lawmakers have introduced a number of bills aimed at increasing traffic and pedestrian safety during the 2023 session, following high profile wrong way driving accidents and increased pedestrian deaths and injuries on streets.

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Marc E. Fitch, Senior Investigative Reporter

Marc E. Fitch

Marc worked as an investigative reporter for Yankee Institute and was a 2014 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow. He previously worked in the field of mental health is the author of several books and novels, along with numerous freelance reporting jobs and publications. Marc has a Master of Fine Arts degree from Western Connecticut State University.

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