OPINION: How bad is Atlanta street racing? ‘Put the vehicles in jail’

The Atlanta City Council approved legislation that penalizes people who attend street racing events. (photo credit: Channel 2 Action News)

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

Street racing on metro Atlanta roads has become an incessant nuisance, and an Atlanta police official this week explained why it’s happening: Underutilized assets.

Yep, the owners of those tricked-out, expensive, noisy vehicles can’t be tethered to 25 mph speed limits.

“They’ve put a lot of money into their cars, lots of times souped them up,” Atlanta Police Deputy Chief Michael O’Connor told the media this week. "And there’s really nowhere they can go and do anything with their car.”

So they show up to a patch of pavement near you and let it rip. Street racing is not new. It has just gotten more annoying since COVID-19 emptied the streets, giving the thrill seekers more space to wow friends and bother residents.

The complaints are widespread: from southwest Atlanta to Buckhead. From West End to Decatur to Midtown to North DeKalb Mall and many spots in between. Even the interstates are not immune.

It’s loud out there at night, and residents are wearing out 911 trying to get the cops to do something to stem the tide of horse-powered knuckle-headedness. In fact, news reports show the same thing happening from Detroit to Chicago to L.A. “Coronavirus isn’t slowing street races. It’s revving them up,” said the LA Times.

The term “street racing” is a misnomer. It’s mostly revving up, peeling out and performing rubber-burning doughnuts for the thrills and amusement of pop-up crowds who scream, cheer and shoot fireworks. There’s also the slow rumbling roar of armadas of modified mufflers at 2 a.m., which is not dangerous like the other antics but is surely detrimental to one’s sleep patterns.

Deputy Chief Michael O'Connor talks about street racing in Atlanta at a news conference at the Atlanta Police Department on Monday, September 14, 2020. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

“We’ve seen the most significant activity in the Zone 2 space, the Buckhead area and coming down into Midtown,” O’Connor said. “Now it’s drifted a little into East Atlanta.”

O’Connor said there have been 459 street racing arrests since February, mostly charges of reckless driving, laying drag and racing. The deputy chief was addressing the media Monday about the same time his boss, Chief Rodney Bryant, was being peppered with questions from Atlanta City Council members, who are hearing from their sleep-deprived constituents.

“We’re not trying to take away the fun, but it’s not safe,” West End resident Kimberly Scott told me. “We have a lot of pedestrians out there at all times of the day,” said Scott, who chairs Neighborhood Planning Unit T.

Councilwoman Joyce Sheperd, who represents South Atlanta, told the police chief during a public safety committee hearing, “It seems (the cars) are louder than ever. You can hear them for miles away before they arrive. In my own community, I’m getting inundated” with calls.

“The courts are not open and people know they can get away with a lot,” Sheperd added. “I feel like we’re at a disadvantage. And they know that.”

Frustration ran thick with council members, several of whom spoke of seizing the automotive miscreants' wheels.

“We need to get more flexibility in state law for us to confiscate a vehicle,” Council President Felicia Moore told me after the meeting. “If they realize they’d lose their vehicles, it’ll disincentivize them from doing these activities. Basically put the vehicle in jail.”

Moore added that the more cops must be pulled away to deal with motorized mayhem, the less time they have to address other crimes. And remember, cops are a limited resource (notwithstanding critics who have been calling for fewer of them).

A large crowd gathers to watch cars do burnouts in Atlanta. Authorities are looking for ways to crack down on the recent spike in illegal street racing across the city. (Photo courtesy of Ben Hendren)

Credit: Courtesy of Ben Hendren

Credit: Courtesy of Ben Hendren

The problem facing police is they are contending with a very mobile, tech-savvy bunch. The enthusiasts announce on social media where they are going, and then the crowd arrives. Streets are blocked, the drivers do their thing, and then scram as the police close in. Sometimes, three or four events occur at the same time, with people converging at the most popular event before splitting up again.

They can be brazen. Councilman Dustin Hillis, who represents Northwest Atlanta, saw an online post that an event would be held at the same time and place as it was the previous Sunday. About 100 cars arrived. Doughnuts were done. Rubber was burned. Cops were called. And it took an hour for the officers to arrive, Hillis said.

ExploreAtlanta police vow to ramp up their crackdown on street racing

Deputy Chief O’Connor says the number of incidents are down. He said they’ve brought in special units like the auto theft and High Intensity Traffic teams. (Police reports show that several street racing arrests were made by Garrett Rolfe, the officer who was later fired and charged in the killing of Rayshard Brooks, shot to death in June outside a Wendy’s.)

Also, police officials have brought in the Georgia State Patrol, whose troopers can give chase. Atlanta cops can’t.

“Pursuits are inherently dangerous," said O’Connor. "The problem with pursuing for offenses like this is it’s really a low-level offense. I get it. It’s a huge irritation. No one wants to be living around this while they’re spinning their tires and making noise. But we certainly don’t want to kill someone in a vehicle pursuit for someone just laying tracks.”

The Atlanta Police Department’s strategy is paying benefits. On Sunday, during a street racing sweep near Buckhead, cops arrested De’Andre Brown, who is accused of being involved in a shootout that left two dead and 13 people wounded. The shooting occurred at 2 a.m. on July 5 during an illicit street party on Auburn Avenue.

Police released this photo of suspect De’Andre Brown, who was arrested in a July 5 shooting at Auburn Avenue that left 2 dead and 13 wounded.

Credit: Atlanta police

Credit: Atlanta police

“It is not lost on us the suspect of this shooting was apprehended while engaging in some of the same behaviors that were taking place at the time of the shooting which led to the deaths of Joshua Ingram and Erica Robinson,” police said.

Amber Connor, a northwest Atlanta resident who heads the group Concerned Citizens United, has been listening to scanner reports and realizes that police strategy has changed — they don’t arrive until after the crowd gets to a location, then they block them in and make arrests.

Connor knew last weekend would be bad when she tried to rent a car and they were all gone. Only minivans were left. The renters, she said, wanted to get the cars to be able to follow the action. Some, she added, wanted to be in it.

The next day, she came back and saw an orange Dodge Charger being returned. The rental employees measured the depth of the tread on the tires, apparently to see how much fun the customers had.

So, here’s a consumer tip: If you’re renting an orange Charger, check the tires to see if there’s any tread left.