Jun. 23—With the spring thaw comes the torque of illegal dirt bikes and ATVs. Now, in response to the widespread problem, eight area police departments are banding together to collectively get a handle on it.
The Merrimack Valley Reckless Bikers Task Force includes the Methuen, Lawrence and Andover police departments locally, along with Lowell, Chelmsford, Dracut, Tewksbury and Tyngsborough.
Last year, Methuen police partnered with officers from Lawrence, Lowell and the State Police to combat the problem.
"This task force seeks to expand on those efforts and bring a more comprehensive approach," said Methuen Police Chief McNamara. "The goal of this collaboration with other Merrimack Valley Police Departments is to maintain the safety of our streets and residents. The task force will do this by sharing information with our task force partners and local police departments as well as sharing best practices. These processes will combine to strengthen our enforcement efforts and guide us in addressing this serious and dangerous issue that our communities are facing."
In mid-May, a Lawrence man was arrested for driving a dirt bike illegally and carrying a loaded firearm in his fanny pack while doing so, police said. Eduardo Colon, 25, was charged with driving without a license, driving an unregistered motor vehicle, carrying a loaded firearm, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.
But Colon's arrest and the seizure of the dirt bike points to a far wider problem.
"Everyday there's another complaint," said Lawrence Police Chief Roy Vasque.
He said bikes and ATVs blow down city streets, sometimes "in packs," disturbing and frightening residents.
"They are not legal in any way, shape, or form," Vasque asserted.
A major issue with the bikes are laws that prevent police pursuing them on public roads. Vasque said engaging in a high-speed chase with such drivers presents major liability risks to the general public.
"They flee and we can't chase them," he said. "On the one hand the public wants us to do something — but we also can't be putting people's lives in danger."
The public can, however, play a major role in helping police control and capture the dirt culprits, he said.
In addition reporting errant bikers on local roads and streets, Vasque said police need information on where the bikers live, hang out and meet.
In May, detectives spotted Colon on a dirt bike while they were conducting surveillance on Lawrence Street.
"As detectives approached the individual he attempted to flee on foot. During the brief foot pursuit, the individual removed his fanny pack and threw it to the ground. After the individual was taken into custody, the detectives located a loaded firearm in the fanny pack," according to a police report.
Two other dirt bikes were also seized by Lawrence police at that time.
Lawrence Mayor Brian DePena stressed then that cracking down on dirt bikes — a major quality-of-life issues in the city — is a city priority.
"The individuals taking part in this illegal behavior are not only violating numerous motor vehicle laws, but in some instances, this behavior has resulted in violent assaults on innocent motorists," DePena said.
In March 2021, Lawrence police — with assistance from state troopers, a State Police helicopter and the Essex County Sheriff's Department — cracked down on illegal dirt bike and ATV drivers.
Six people between the ages of 18 to 35 were arrested and three were issued summonses to appear in court. Officers ordered 13 off-road vehicles and minibikes towed and issued 20 citations, police said.
McNamara said dirt bikes and ATVs have become more prevalent during the past three years, adding that these vehicles are most often found in the western and central parts of Methuen.
"Most of these off-road dirt bikes are illegal on city streets and we are finding that even street-legal motor bikes are often unregistered or stolen," he said. "The individuals are becoming more brazen, taunting and attempting to intimidate motorists and even the police."
He also described the heightened risk his officers take when chasing a recreational vehicle.
"Dirt bike and ATV pursuits are especially dangerous," McNamara said. "As it pertains to Methuen, we limit the use of continued pursuits to the most serious circumstances due to the possible consequences of those pursuits."
Combined with supreme maneuvering capabilities, many dirt bikes have top speeds of at least 100 miles per hour, while ATVs are capable of hitting 80 miles per hour. On June 7, Methuen Police chased five dirt bike operators. Four managed to escape.
But with the multi-department task force, he said a vehicular pursuit is no longer the only option.
"That's part of what this task force is all about, we will be sharing resources and information with our law enforcement partners throughout the Merrimack Valley," McNamara said. "We will utilize information, including the information we receive directly from our city residents to determine where these bikes gather and where they are being stored overnight."
In addition, McNamara said his officers will begin using a public camera system.
"I'm excited to see the impact the camera system will have on this issue," he said.
Methuen Mayor Neil Perry said the problem has become "epidemic across the Merrimack Valley," particularly in the past two years.
"We are hopeful the task force can address this safety issue for all our residents and we hope the residents continue to report any instances they see," he said.
Methuen City Council Chairman D.J. Beauregard commends McNamara for joining the task force.
"It's an area where a regional approach makes a lot of sense," he said. "It's always great when municipalities team up to share best practices and work together to improve public safety."
Methuen Central District Councilor James McCarty said dirt bikes and other recreational vehicles will continue to become more prevalent going into the summer months.
"In Methuen, residents are sick and tired of dirt bikes speeding through residential zones. Police Chief Scott McNamara identified this issue when he was hired and is working to address this safety concern," he said.
McCarty, who is also running for state representative of the 4th Essex District, said while he is out campaigning residents frequently tell him about the ongoing noise pollution and dangers associated with the dirt bikes.
He also recalled a time last summer when he found himself surrounded by dirt bikes in front of Holy Family Hospital.
"None of the operators were identifiable due to full facial coverings and none of the bikes had registered plates," McCarty said. "It is a challenging issue to address, but I believe the Merrimack Valley will work together as a coalition to resolve the reckless operation of motor bikes."
Anyone with information about the storage locations of dirt bikes, mopeds and scooters as well as those who use them are asked to contact police via email at BikeTipLine@ci.methuen.ma.us.