It was a video that raised eyebrows on social media: a Grand Rapids police officer jumping out of his car, running down the street, pulling a dirt bike rider off his seat as he was stopped at an intersection and taking him to the ground.
When Police Chief Eric Winstrom saw the video, he wasn’t fazed, but rather pleased, stressing this was not excessive force.
It was a cop doing his job, the chief explained, to stop a pervasive problem that has been terrorizing cities across America for years: reckless and lawless dirt bikers and ATV riders owning the streets, with little to no consequences.
“When this video popped up, I said, ‘Oh, I fully support this,’ ” Winstrom said in a recent interview with the Free Press, noting the arrested biker was part of a larger pack driving recklessly that day. He had sped away when police tried to pull him over.
It’s a scene that has played out over and over in cities big and small across America, where police have struggled for years to combat rogue bikers and ATV riders popping wheelies, driving on sidewalks and egging on cops to chase them. Cities like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Durham, North Carolina, to name a few, have long battled this problem, prompting police to get more creative — and more aggressive — in catching these scofflaws.
ATV deaths on public roads skyrocket
“Unfortunately, it’s a nationwide trend, and very hard to enforce,” said Detroit Police Cmdr. Eric Decker, who, for years, has fought to help rid the city of lawless ATV and dirt bike riders — the latter being especially elusive. “They’re easy to get away. They’re light, small, maneuverable and the people operating them … have no regard for anyone else’s safety, let alone their own.”
Decker understands the frustration of the community, noting that police everywhere are hamstrung by department policies that prohibit them from chasing motorists unless it’s for a violent crime. And chasing any kind of motorbike is never a good idea, police say, as it puts the rider, police and the public in danger.
That means the scofflaws too often get away. Communities feel helpless. Lawlessness rules the day.
And people are getting hurt, even dying.
Every month, an estimated 10 dirt bike riders die in America, and at least one person a day dies while riding an off-highway vehicle like an ATV, according to a Free Press analysis of statistics published by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the U.S. Department of Transportation. Specifically, deaths of ATV riders illegally crusing public roads have skyrocketed over the last four decades, averaging more than 300 a year during the 2000s, compared with just 35 in 1982.
Motorcycle deaths hit a record high of 6,084 in 2021 — the most recent year national data was available. Of those, 121 were dirt bike riders.
Injury and death around US — and in Michigan
The death toll, however, does not include the innocent bystanders who fall victim to this unhinged hobby.
In Utah last year, a 19-year-old man was killed while crossing a street after a speeding dirt bike driven by a 14-year-old ran through a stop sign and struck him. The rider, whose motorbike-riding friends left him on the pavement and fled the scene with his bike, was also seriously injured.
In Connecticut this summer, the daughter of former NBA player Tyson Wheeler died after being thrown from a dirt bike on which she was a passenger. The driver, who was part of a bigger pack of bikers that day, ran a red light and struck a car, triggering second-degree manslaughter charges against him last month.
In suburban Philadelphia this summer, police say a dirt bike rider intentionally hit a 64-year-old pedestrian in August, running him over twice. The man survived.
Then there are people like Mia Virag, a 23-year-old Western Michigan University grad from Muskegon, who was just starting her job as a foster care specialist when reckless bikers upended her life in Grand Rapids this summer.
It was Aug. 15, and Virag was headed back to the office in a work van when out her window she saw a group of three bikers coming at her at top speed. Much of what followed is a blur for Virag, except for the pain — the excruciating pain — she felt after one biker T-boned the van, crushing the door she was next to.
“My body kind of went numb … I couldn’t hear. Then all of a sudden the pain just hit, and I started screaming. It was excruciating pain,” recalled Virag, who was hospitalized this summer for 38 days with massive internal injuries, and at one point was given a 25% chance to live.
How she learned of motorcyclist’s death
Her liver — which she said doctors described as “shredded” — her spleen, kidneys, lungs and right arm suffered serious injuries. She has had a dozen surgeries, with another planned for next week to stop bile from leaking into her abdomen. Her liver is still a concern — to prevent more damage, she can’t bend, twist or lift anything over 10 pounds. She gets weak and shaky if she stands or walks for more than 15 minutes at a time, her career and life on hold as the healing continues at her mom’s home in Spring Lake.
“I don’t think they know how badly I was hurt,” Virag said of the bikers she saw that day. “Maybe if they did, it would be a different story, but I don’t think they even know.”
Two cyclists hit Virag’s work van that day. Her two colleagues in the van and one cyclist were treated for non-life-threatening injuries. The driver who crashed into her door, 31-year-old Wade Freeman, a Grand Rapids motorcycle enthusiast with two daughters and a third on the way — died at the scene. Police said he was driving between 40-50 mph when he hit the van, twice the legal speed limit in that area — and engaged in reckless behavior before the crash, including riding on the sidewalk and improper lane usage.
Virag learned of the man’s death from a nurse.
“My heart was broken,” Virag said. “He had a wife, kids. That made me sad. That was a little bit of a roller coaster for me,”
Virag admits she also is angry. The constant replay of the accident and the aftermath keeps her up at night, and the constant, agonizing question of why?
“Why did this happen to me? Why am I still alive?” asked Viraj.
“I had to work through a lot of anger about ‘Why?” she said. “I feel like it could have been avoided.”
Meanwhile, Virag said she hopes her accident serves as a message to the biker community:
“I just want people to know that their actions truly affect people. When you’re on the road, there’s always a risk of getting into an accident. But there are a lot of things that can be prevented,” she said. “So you just need to think of yourself — and others. We have laws for a reason.”
Police step up efforts to combat motorbike hooligans
Through it all, Virag, a psychology graduate who moved to Grand Rapids with friends 10 days before the accident, remains optimistic.
“Even though this happened, I am resilient. My body is resilient, and as time goes on, things are looking better,” she said. “I am just putting my faith in God’s hands, and he has a plan for me, whatever that may be …. I’m just really grateful to still be here.”
It’s stories like Virag’s that frustrate police, who in recent years have gotten more aggressive in combating the rogue biker and ATV problem.
Grand Rapids police, for example, have started using drones and helicopters to monitor the tracks of reckless bikers and ATV riders who flee from officers trying to pull them over. Rather than pursue a chase, the officers wait for the choppers to give them a location where the bikes have stopped, like at home or a gas station. Then the cops swoop in and make an arrest.
In New York City, police have launched a community response team of over 300 officers, who, with the help of helicopters, surveillance video at bridges and intelligence sources, have seized more than 10,000 dirt bikes, ATVs and mopeds over the last year. And to send a message, they sometimes crush the bikes — as a bulldozer did in 2022 to 96 seized bikes and ATVs, with the mayor waving the flag to let the crushing begin.
Detroit police are also clamping down on what has been a nonstop problem in the city. They’re arresting illegal bikers and ATV riders in planned takedowns, seizing illegal vehicles by the dozens, offering $250 rewards for tips leading to the seizure of ATVs and dirt bikes, and monitoring social media for organized bike events. Detroit police are also using Michigan State Police and Homeland Security helicopters to monitor the movements of dirt bikers or ATVs who flee from police, then get caught when they come to a stop.
Cmdr. Decker has been involved in numerous such scenarios in recent years, noting there’s a sense of satisfaction in catching these riders.
‘Hey, let’s go block traffic and end up downtown’
“It’s very frustrating from a police officer’s perspective. You engage lights and sirens. They take off. They risk everyone else’s lives. And, unfortunately, that message is out there … you can go out and drive like an idiot and the police aren’t going to do anything about it.”
The problem doesn’t want to go away, he said.”Unfortunately, it’s prolific,” Decker said. “There’s just a lot of unauthorized vehicles on our streets,”
Downtown Detroit is an especially hot target, he said.
“There will be a callout through social media, ‘Hey, let’s go block traffic and end up downtown,’ ” Decker said. “So then 50-plus bikers get together and drive like complete idiots. They put videos up, and say, ‘Hey, look at us, messing up traffic.’ “
Sometimes, though, the police get there first, or manage to stop the charade altogether.
The Grand Rapids chief did this recently, showing up at a ride organizer’s front door with a cease-and-desist letter after learning about the event on social media.
“I knocked on his door the day he was supposed to have a midnight ride. I handed him a cease-and-desist letter. And he said, ‘I just organized it,’ ” Chief Winstrom recalled. He then reminded the organizer that 200 riders were planning to converge on Grand Rapids that night, telling him: “It’s very clear that you know that these turn into large events where people are doing illegal driving.”
“That did the trick,” the chief said. “They stayed out of Grand Rapids.”
Police get help from above, but can go too far
Decker had similar success with the help of a chopper this fall.
A dirt biker was flying up and down Grand River Avenue, and pulled about 6 feet away from Decker and popped some wheelies.
“He looked back and said, ‘Are you going to chase me or not?’ ” Decker recalled.
Decker stayed put, then “hit up the helicopter,” which tracked the biker as he sped 80 mph through Detroit, watching him until he pulled the bike into a garage in Highland Park.
Nearby, the cops were waiting. They swooped in and arrested him.
“He has no clue that I have a helicopter watching him,” Decker said.
Sometimes, however, the police are getting too aggressive — as evidenced by a 2022 takedown in Detroit that landed one officer under investigation for alleged misconduct.
That officer officer rammed his cruiser into a dirt bike rider who was fleeing the cops while driving the wrong way on Jefferson Avenue at high speeds with a group of others, and cruising on a sidewalk. To get him to stop, the officer ran his car into the 19-year-old rider, who wound up pinned against a building and broke his foot in the process.
It was captured on video.
The bike rider was arrested and charged with fleeing and eluding police.
The officer who hit him was placed on desk duty and remains under investigation for alleged misconduct.
“We have very stringent pursuit policies,” said Decker, who oversees DPD’s organized crime unit, but was not involved in that 2022 incident. “Unfortunately, somebody got hurt. That’s not the stance of the police. We are not here to intentionally hurt people. We have very restrictive policies.”
That’s why he’s grateful for the choppers. They help catch the bad guys, he said, without a chase.
“They come to a stop and police surround them and say, ‘Hey, you’re going to jail today,’ ” Decker said. “There’s a joy in that.”
Contact Tresa Baldas: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Police nationwide take on rogue dirt bikers as carnage continues