A little over three weeks ago, someone unstrapped three ATVs from a trailer outside Anthony Peabody's Pendrickstown, N.J. home. He was reunited with one of those vehicles yesterday at the Philadelphia Police Department's Major Crimes Auto Squad after a sting on Sunday netted 26 ATVs and 11 illegal dirt bikes from the North and Southwest areas of the the city.
"I was very, very excited, I couldn't believe it," Peabody said yesterday. "This one's actually my wife's." But he said the thieves scraped the tailpipe popping wheelies and caused other damage to the vehicle formerly valued at $4,000. "They raised the suspension," he said. "They put these red markings on it, they weren't there. My wife had her name on it, some decals she printed off the computer. They ripped all that off, they tried to disguise it. It's only been gone since the 15th and they absolutely destroyed the tires from riding it on the road, obviously."
Peabody partially laid the blame at the feet of city police, who have a no-chase policy when it comes to ATVs. "If somebody's just going to risk their own life or whatever trying to rob somebody to take these things, then it's obviously getting out of control because they want to bring them to Philadelphia – because they know the cops don't chase you – and ride them down here because they think it's okay," he said. "So we were a victim of that."
But Deputy Commissioner Thomas Wright said engaging ATVs in high-speed pursuit is a risk to both officers and other motorists and that police are finding alternative ways to bust riders. "We're not going to chase an ATV unsafely," he said. "We utilize police tactics and best practices. … There are certain things we do that are much to our advantage that we will continue to utilize, like covert intelligence and some other activities that will allow us to pursue them in a safe way."
Though he couldn't offer many details about Sunday's bust, he said that it was a mix of police intelligence and community tips that led officers to the ATVs and dirt bikes that "were not registered and operated in a haphazard manner on sidewalks" in North Philadelphia, Fairmount Park, and Cobb's Creek.
He said ATV riding creates grave risks, especially on Philadelphia's narrow, heavily-trafficked streets. "Look at any social media site, just punch in 'ATV' and you'll see them driving through the city, popping wheelies on 95," he said. "I can't explain how dangerous that is, not only to themselves, but to motorists around them. Obviously they're very skilled drivers. I applaud them for that, but this is not the place to do it."
A cursory search confirms Wright's statements regarding the accessibility of ATV videos on social media, the drivers' apparent skill – and the dangers they court.
The suspect caught driving Peabody's ATV eluded police, but Wright said there will be more crackdowns in the future. "I strongly encourage anyone who has an ATV or who has an illegal dirt bike: Do not operate them in the city of Philadelphia," he said. "This is just the beginning of some activities and initiatives we'll be utilizing in the months to come."
– It's pretty easy to get ATVs back from police once they are seized. "Unfortunately, right now, if you have the title, insurance and a license, we will give you your vehicle back," Wright said.
– But you still can't drive them home. "You can't just hop on them and go home," Wright said. "Bring a flat bed."
– Your sick YouTube stunt video could get you popped. "I think everyone nowadays is using social media," Wright said. "If they want to put it on there, we're going to look at it."
– Investigators can't arrest people for storing ATVs, nor can they chase them on city streets. So they are concentrating on areas where riders congregate. "Some are driven by flatbeds, some are just driven on the highway to get to their location, where they would meet up and then they would formerly travel as a group throughout the city," Wright said. "But we had that information through police knowledge, intelligence, as well as information from the community."
– Police are working with lawmakers to create tougher policies. "We submitted some legislation through our legal experts for the city of Philadelphia's police department, as well as the City Solicitor's Office, that should give us some enforcement help in not only recovering these ATVs, but making it more difficult to get them back with elevated fines, things of that nature," Wright said. Those also include tougher penalties for two-time offenders.