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City announces police team to target illegal ATV, dirt bike use

Advocacy groups raise concerns over possible discrimination, surveillance as result of Community Response Team

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A new city program will aim to stem illegal ATV and dirt bike use in Providence, according to an April 5 press release

Mayor Brett Smiley and Police Chief Col. Oscar Perez announced a “Community Response Team” under the Providence Police Department, which will identify “illegal activity” and target “individuals associated with ATV storage, operation and sales,” according to the release. With the goal of seizing more vehicles and investigating illegal ATV use, the team will use “undercover detective work, video from existing technology and social media activity.”

“We want people to know we are serious about stopping the use of these illegal vehicles that put everyone at risk and make our streets unsafe,” Smiley said in the press release. “By creating the Community Response Team, we will be using more resources than in the past to detect activity before it occurs, and we will be pursuing the appropriate criminal charges. No one should be using these vehicles and if they are caught doing so, they will face serious consequences.”

ATVs and dirt bikes are illegal to use on public streets in Providence.

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But some advocates expressed concerns to The Herald about the implementation of the Community Response Team and the potential for increased surveillance. Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island and Black Lives Matter R.I. PAC both raised concerns about possible discrimination and privacy violations that could result from the team.

Smiley says crackdown is necessary

Illegal ATV use has occurred in Providence for years, with serious criminal acts occurring in some cases: In 2021, a Providence woman was allegedly dragged from her vehicle and beaten by ATV riders. 

In past years, Providence police addressed ATV use by enforcing a city ordinance allowing them to confiscate ATVs and dirt bikes being ridden illegally. The new program will ensure that resources for ATV and dirt bike enforcement will only go to the Community Response Team and not be redirected elsewhere within the police force, a problem that former Mayor Jorge Elorza noted in March 2022.

Increased enforcement around ATV and dirt bike use came after community input made clear that their use was a pressing concern, according to Josh Estrella, Smiley’s press secretary.

Estrella wrote that the strategy is a “proactive plan, rather than a reactive plan to address the dangerous use of these vehicles (which) holds riders to a higher level of accountability” in an email to The Herald. The timing of its implementation is also intentional — he wrote that ATV use typically rises as the weather gets warmer.

According to Smiley, the ATV program is about working toward incident prevention rather than punishment.

“We have seen far too often what happens when these vehicles collide with traffic and pedestrians,” Smiley wrote in an email to The Herald. “By taking this issue seriously, and shifting to a preventative approach, we are protecting these riders from getting injured or injuring others. Our hope is that these actions will deter further illegal activity.”

Concerns regarding privacy, policing

Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU of R.I., agreed that illegal ATV use is a problem — but said the creation of a special department within the police force is an unnecessary measure.

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“There are already numerous laws on the books that we think can be used against individuals who are illegally driving these vehicles,” Brown said. “Certainly anybody who’s engaged in reckless driving … is subject to legal penalties.”

Harrison Tuttle, executive director of BLM RI PAC, wrote in an email to The Herald that the organization fears that communities of color “will disproportionately see the brunt of the arrests and fines” resulting from the ATV program.

“Although we agree throughout the past couple of years that a minority of the riders have caused havoc on the streets, these specific efforts to crack down will disproportionately affect people of color,” Tuttle wrote. “These vehicles are the most easily accessible form of independently owned transit for these people.”

Estrella noted that the “proactive and preventative” nature of the strategy will allow police to intervene before riders take to the streets and potentially get charged with a crime.

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Brown additionally called the potential for the expanded use of surveillance technology an area of concern. The ACLU is concerned that cameras, such as the 25 free cameras provided to Providence by Flock Safety, could be used to track individuals as they drive around the city or the state, according to Brown.

“The possibilities of their use (are) endless,” Brown said. He noted that the cameras could potentially capture all sorts of identifying information, including bumper stickers, allowing the department to track individuals.

Estrella asserted that “no new technology is being utilized,” and that “there is no implementation of a surveillance system.” Instead, he said, police will use existing video technology to investigate ATV activity, with a focus on intervention prior to vehicles reaching streets.

Tuttle said that while the ATV program appears to be geared mainly at cracking down on illegal use of the vehicles, the state must take steps towards making transit more accessible, which would in turn limit the amount of illegal and reckless driving.

“Rhode Island must provide an avenue for these riders to access effective transit,” Tuttle wrote. “Dirt bikes and ATVs will continue to be an affordable and easily accessible form of transit for many in low-income communities, increasing the likelihood of individuals purchasing them out of necessity.  For most riders, purchasing an ATV or dirt bike is far more accessible than purchasing, registering and maintaining a car.”


Yael Sarig

Yael is a senior staff writer covering city and state politics. She is junior, and hails from the Bay Area.



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