Detroit cops take to the sky to stop illegal ATV drivers, drag racing

George Hunter
The Detroit News
Two cars face off in a drag race on a Detroit street in 2018. Police officials have started to deploy helicopters to curb illegal racing and off-road vehicle use.

Detroit — The word is out among motorists who illegally drag race and drive off-road vehicles on city streets: Detroit cops aren't allowed to engage in high-speed chases, so escaping squad cars is easy.

In response to traffic violators who regularly elude cops — often taunting them in the process — police officials are calling in air support as part of a new strategy to combat what they say is an ongoing, dangerous problem.

"ATVs and dirt bikes can go places a scout car can't go," said Detroit police Chief James Craig. "(The drivers) know our officers aren't allowed to chase them, so they've been able to get away.

"Same thing with drag racers: They just speed off, knowing we can't chase them," Craig said. "Well, let's see them try to outrun our eyes in the sky."

Craig said the initiative, which was launched late last month, will focus on stopping drag racers, off-road vehicles, and other traffic violations. Officers will confiscate violators' vehicles and issue citations, he said.

"It's gotten to a place where there's no fear among these people," Craig said. "They're blatantly disregarding the law, and putting innocent citizens at risk."

Drag racing and illegal off-road vehicles likely are responsible for at least three deaths in Detroit last month, police officials said.

A Chevy Corvette and a Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk drag race on a Detroit street in May. Police officials have started to deploy helicopters to curb illegal racing and off-road vehicle use.

A 38-year-old man died May 22 after he lost control of his ATV, hit a curb and then slammed into a building on Grand River near Burt Road on the city's west side.

On May 14, Detroiters Sherman Wright, 61, and Eugenia Frison, 52, died when their vehicle was T-boned by a car police believe was part of a drag race on West Seven Mile.

Allivas Kyles, 32, of Highland Park faces several charges in connection with the deaths, including two counts of second-degree murder, two counts of operating a vehicle with a suspended/revoked diver's license causing death, and two counts of failure to stop at an accident when at fault resulting in death.

In the days after the incident, police officials said it wasn't clear whether drag racing was involved, although Craig said investigators have since obtained surveillance video footage that suggests Kyles and others were racing.

Clyde Wright of Detroit sits on the moped he recently purchased for $450. He said  people in his east-side neighborhood use off-road vehicles for both joy-riding and inexpensive transportation.

"The video shows the cars all lined up as if starting a race, so we're pretty sure they were drag racing," Craig said.

Craig said he met the morning of May 21 with his executive team to tweak the new enforcement strategy. Later that night, the initiative was launched after investigators got a tip that several people planned to gather near Harper near Beaconsfield and illegally drive the off-road vehicles in the street.

Police impounded four ATVs and dirt-bikes, arrested one man and detained six others.

Detroit police will deploy the department's helicopter and another on loan from the Michigan State Police to curb illegal racing and off-road vehicle use, although air support was not used in the May 21 operation.

"The air support is only one component," Craig said. "I don't want to give too many details, because I don't want to telegraph our strategy, but we're going to use technology and other tools to put a stop to this reckless behavior."

Detroit resident Clyde Wright, 26, said people in his east side neighborhood use off-road vehicles for both joy-riding and inexpensive transportation.

"I need transportation to get to my job training program, but I don't have any money," said Wright, who is required to attend the training as part of the terms of his probation for larceny. "So I was able to buy this moped for $450 ... I asked my probation officer if it was OK to drive, and he said yes.

"It's only $14 for a license plate, $2 to fill up, and you're good to go," Wright said. "I see them in my neighborhood all the time. Some of my friends have them. I don't see the problem, although my friend told me just this morning that police are cracking down on them. So I guess I'll be more careful."

Although the city's underground off-road vehicle culture has been around for years, it was thrust into the spotlight after Aug. 26, 2017, when former Michigan State trooper Mark Bessner deployed his Taser on 15-year-old Damon Grimes, who was driving his ATV in the street on Detroit's east side.

After being stunned, Grimes crashed into a flatbed truck and died of blunt-force head trauma. Last month, Bessner was sentenced to 5-15 years in prison after being convicted of manslaughter.

Video shows Bessner used his stun gun after Grimes popped a wheelie in front of him.

Drag racing isn't just a Detroit problem. In Highland Park, a suspected racer hit a police cruiser early on the morning of May 27. Officers were investigating a report of drag racing near Second Avenue and Manchester Parkway when they encountered the racers near Woodward and the Davison Freeway, officials said.

When an officer exited his vehicle to approach the suspects, one of the drivers accelerated and slammed his white 2011 to 2014 Chrysler 300 into the cruiser. Police fired shots at the suspect, who escaped. The officer was briefly hospitalized.

In Warren, 24-year-old Mikel Maty was charged in February in connection with a fatal drag-racing incident that resulted in a man's death last year. Authorities say Maty was racing another car on southbound Mound when he allegedly "sped through the intersection, slamming into a blue Dodge Dart," investigators said in a statement. The victim died two weeks later. Maty's case is ongoing.

But the problem is especially acute in Detroit, Craig said, adding he's received several reports of "people flagrantly taunting our officers by popping wheelies and pulling out in front of their scout cars."

Detroit police Lt. Christopher Cole, commanding officer of the Traffic Enforcement Unit, said a dirt bike rider taunted him earlier this year on the city's east side.

"On Feb. 22, I was doing traffic enforcement on Outer Drive near Mound, when a Yamaha dirt bike passed me doing a wheelie," Cole said. "I wasn't hiding; I'm sure he saw me. It was so brazen — he looked at me and started making hand gestures at me."

Cole said he followed the rider for about 15 minutes. "I didn't do a high-speed chase, but I followed him and ended up taking him into custody." Craig banned such chases shortly after coming to Detroit in 2013.

Traffic violations by drag racers and off-road vehicle owners are citywide, Cole said.

"Right now, we're seeing it in all parts of the city," he said. "So we've got officers citywide assisting with the drag racing detail. It's hard to prove drag racing if you're not there from start to finish, but reckless driving is an arrest-able misdemeanor charge, and it comes with six points on your license.

"I don’t know if people just consider this joy-riding, but it’s become a hazard," Cole said.

Detroit resident Lavern Baldwin, 73, said off-road vehicles and drag racing aren't only a safety issue; she said they also impact quality of life.

"You hear those loud engines with those things going up and down the street — people can't sleep at night," said Baldwin, who lives on the city's west side. "They need to go to Belle Isle or something. You can't have that in the neighborhood, making it to where other people can't drive safely."

After the Grimes death, Craig said he wanted to explore the possibility of finding land to set aside for off-road vehicle use. He said he's still open to that plan — "but it takes money," he said.

In 2017, Craig, an avid racing fan, endorsed the Motor City Showdown, a legal drag racing event held at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Airport. He said development plans at the airport ended that.

"I've always had a love for muscle cars, but racing has to be done in a legal and safe manner," he said. "You can only do that on a sanctioned raceway. Unfortunately, those are far from the city.

"We talked with experts from the National Hot Rod Association about what it would take to build a raceway here," Craig said. "It's a big undertaking that would take a lot of land to build. If you have a quarter-mile track, it still needs to be way longer than that to allow the cars to stop.

"We'd like to find a solution, but until then you can't just violate the law and taunt police officers while you're doing it," the chief said.

Craig said he hopes the latest initiative "sends a strong message that if you violate the law by engaging in these flagrant violations, we're going to take your vehicle and hold you accountable."