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Police helicopters play key role helping Minn. LEOs catch street racers

Aircraft with high-definition cameras are helping Twin Cities officers catch racers without getting into dangerous pursuits


Lt. Craig Benz shows off the State Patrol helicopter, a $12 million Bell 407 used to assist law enforcement on the ground during special enforcements, on Tuesday, May 9, 2023, in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Richard Tsong-Taatarii/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS

By Kyeland Jackson
Star Tribune

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Both from the air and on the ground, law enforcement officials say they’ve ramped up tactics to curb street racing and other dangerous stunt driving in the Twin Cities metro and across the state — trends that have emerged in recent summers with deadly consequences.

Joined by members of multiple agencies, State Patrol Col. Matt Langer said people who promote or even watch street races will be held accountable, and likely for more than just a ticket.

“Whether it is a promoter, a participant, or an attendee, all are complicit in this illegal activity and will be held accountable,” he said. “And that accountability is not just maybe going to be a citation. You could find yourself going to jail for second-degree riot.”

Street racing became a more prevalent issue in Minnesota as the pandemic began. Charging documents against a group of racing organizers outlined “intersection takeovers” that attracted hundreds of people, blocking traffic as vehicles performed donuts and spinouts just steps away from spectators.

The crimes have endangered bystanders and cost the city thousands of dollars in road repairs, according to those documents. Some spectators have been struck by cars.

Tayler Nicole Garza and Dalton Lee Ford, both 22, were killed in Burnsville after a driver racing his sister crashed into their SUV. At least two people, 19-year-old Vanessa Jensen and 17-year-old Nicholas Enger, were shot and killed by stray bullets while attending the events. Three teens were struck and injured by the driver of a tire-squealing car doing burnouts in downtown Minneapolis.

Langer was joined Tuesday by representatives of the Minneapolis and St. Paul police departments, Fridley Police Department, Ramsey County Sheriff’s Office and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. He said law enforcement must work together in order to keep the streets safe, work that is challenging because of how street racing has evolved.

“The type of driving conduct that’s related to some of the street racing ... is not something we’ve seen before. And so the law is catching up,” Langer said. “It’s not as simple as two vehicles pull up to a stop sign, challenge each other, and just race for a quarter-mile. We’re seeing organized groups come together with the intention of causing problems and causing mayhem.”

Patrol helicopters now play a key role by helping law enforcement catch street racers without launching a dangerous chase. Some aircraft are equipped with high-definition cameras, able to record infrared videos at night while pinpointing a driver’s location. It can take pilots up to 15 minutes to take to the air once they’ve been requested, but Langer said in many cases they are already airborne because officers are flying more often.

According to data provided by the State Patrol, street racing between April and December of last year led to nearly 2,000 stops and 167 arrests.

Some of those stops followed a chaotic July 4th weekend last year when motorists in Minneapolis shot fireworks at pedestrians and other vehicles.

More targeted enforcement has come from the State Patrol’s HEAT program, which was slated to end last August but extended through 2022. HEAT data says between February and December last year, the program made more than 21,000 speeding contacts and more than 300 arrests.

Minneapolis Deputy Chief of Patrol Erick Fors said the issue affects cities across the state — and requires collaboration across county lines.

“These events created dangerous environments that result in additional violent criminal activity,” Fors said. “This is an issue that affects many different cities and jurisdictions, and one that requires a coordinated partnership and approach.”

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