To stop street takeovers, Conn. PD tracks down registered vehicle owners to warn of tickets
Connecticut police departments are also monitoring social media, creating a flow of information between departments and working with the FBI to prevent street takeovers
By Don Stacom
WETHERSFIELD, Conn. — With residents last fall complaining about a street takeover, loud race meet-ups and a massive late-night gathering of disruptively loud cars, police are employing a new tactic: Tracking down the vehicle owners to warn of potential fines in the future.
“Our investigators have a video of your car trespassing … continuing disregard for traffic laws may result in more severe consequences,” Wethersfield Chief Rafael Medina warned in a letter to dozens of car owners identified after a noisy illegal Nov. 19 gathering that frightened homeowners throughout the Wethersfield Cove area.
In a state that’s been hit hard by loosely organized, deliberately disruptive and often dangerous gatherings of young drivers doing burnouts, doughnuts or displays of deafeningly loud modified mufflers, police see the letter campaign as a tool to push back.
“We’re not going to chase (drivers), but in this case what we did is we identified the registered owners and took a different measure to educate and enforce,” Medina said this week. “We’re saying ‘We know you were here, we know you were part of the problem. If you do it again and we catch you, you’re going to get a ticket.”
Law enforcement agencies across the country have been looking for new tactics since the early days of the pandemic when crowds of young drivers and spectators gathering for pop-up races and dangerous street takeovers became commonplace.
Illegal street racing has been problematic for decades, usually in isolated areas of cities. But police nationally have seen a spike in larger crowds showing up to watch, sometimes taking control of intersections and blocks while drivers smoke their tires and race their engines.
Starting in 2020, major cities like Los Angeles, Houston, Atlanta and San Diego reported a surge in loosely organized reckless driving, which later spread to suburbs. Often a few people in each city became the social media organizers of major gatherings, using Instagram or X to call a flash mob of drivers — invariably accompanied by scores or even hundreds of spectators.
In bigger Connecticut cities like Hartford and New Haven, ATVs and dirt bikes — often piloted by hooded drivers — during the pandemic sped through major downtown areas anytime between dusk and dawn. Videos started showing up on social media of groups of vehicles weaving recklessly on highways or city streets, sometimes speeding and other times slowing in sync across all lanes to force traffic down to 20 mph or even less.
The lower Naugatuck Valley was the scene of an especially violent series of takeovers in December, with a crowd of young drivers going between Shelton, Derby, North Haven, Orange and Milford on the same night — and throwing fireworks at police as they did. Video showed some people starting to jump on the hood of a patrol car, and a crowd assaulting a Milford officer.
Detectives have been investigating since, and have charged seven people so far. This week they arrested a 19-year-old Pennsylvania man on charges of interfering with police and disorderly conduct. A 28-year-old Bloomfield man is accused of street racing in connection with that case, and a juvenile is charged with throwing a shopping cart at a police officer during the melee.
Last summer, at least four people in their late teens and early 20s were charged after a violent street takeover in Meriden where more than two dozen spectators surrounded the first police car to arrive. Video showed the crowd jumping on the hood and roof while screaming obscenities at the officer inside.
And also last summer, Farmington police charged two Connecticut men, ages 22 and 24, and three Massachusetts men, ages 18, 19 and 21, in connection with a massive takeover at a parking lot in the Farm Springs Road office park. More than 150 vehicles showed up, and police said drivers took part in “reckless and dangerous driving exhibitions in front of large crowds of spectators and caused thousands of dollars in property damage.”
In Connecticut, police employ a series of tactics to prevent or disperse such gatherings.
“We have been continuously monitoring social media and working with other departments to share information,” Milford Police Officer Brianna MacDonald said. “We will also continue to maintain a presence and deploy additional patrol units when necessary.”
Milford had more illegal meet-ups and street takeovers in 2023 than the year before, and investigators use video to help track down participants.
“Our detective bureau reviewed extensive video from both dash cams and body cams, as well as other videos we obtained. The public has also been a huge help with helping develop leads and identify suspects,” MacDonald said.
Social media has become a key source for police looking to head off races and takeovers.
“Our department learned of one that was to take place on Jan. 13 and partnered with the FBI and Connecticut State Police to develop intelligence on the event,” said Lt. Tom Podgorski of the Norwalk police. “In response to the information we planned a significant police response to strategically deter the participants and maintain order.”
The takeover didn’t happen.
Wallingford hasn’t had a full-scale takeover, but one of its officers worked with the task force of New Haven officers and state troopers that cracked down on ATV and dirt bike street takeovers in the region last summer.
“Many of these groups traversed through Wallingford and other jurisdictions at times. To address the issue, officers used both marked and unmarked police cruisers to locate and stop the operators. Officers towed ATVs and operators were issued citations or charged accordingly for violations,” said Wallingford Police Lt. Stephen Jacques.
“Regarding investigations, the most important tool we have is to collaborate and exchange information with other agencies,” he said.
The town is looking into whether license plate readers should be installed around the community.
Wethersfield’s approach with the Nov. 19 gathering focused on follow-up letters to car owners partly because of the nature of the meet-up: It was mostly about noise, not reckless driving or speeding.
Drivers revved their engines to produce super-loud backfires that are intended to sound like gun shots. Aftermarket automotive dealers sell so-called burble tune kits to modify mufflers for that effect, and some are so specialized that they’re dubbed “AK47 tune kits” because they replicate the sound of automatic gunfire.
“The loud muffler has evolved from this race car-sounding, deep-throttle muscle car thing to the ones now where it backfires and sounds like gunshots,” said Lt. Gustavo Rodriguez, detective commander for the Wethersfield police.
“They do it intentionally for that backfiring noise. It’s a show-off thing. At the meet-ups they pop the hood, ‘look at my engine, look at my seats.’ Loudspeakers, maybe neon lights hooked up to the car. It’s ‘fast and loud,’ ” Rodriguez said.
Police can issued a $225 ticket for such mufflers, and can refer the vehicle for a DMV inspection. But drivers get by that by removing custom equipment or undoing any modifications before going to DMV, then return it after the inspection, police said.
On the night of Nov. 19 , more than 100 cars showed up at a commercial parking lot on Great Meadow Road at Putnam Park near the Connecticut River . The sound carried far, and police were inundated with calls from people who thought they’d heard gunfire.
“What made this unique is that Putnam Park is right next to Old Wethersfield, so it generated more than 100 calls to us,” Rodriguez said.
“The sound was carrying over Wethersfield Cove,” Medina said.
The drivers all fled when police arrived; to prevent greater risk on the roads, police don’t chase cars in that kind of situation. But detectives have reviewed video from private security cameras at the parking lot as well as dash cam video from patrol cars, and linked dozens of cars to their registered owners — including some from out of state. Medina sent letters to all of them.
“The purpose of the letter is to say ‘We know your car was here.’ There’s more than one instance where it was a parent’s car,” Rodriguez said. “You as the owner may not know what your friend or your kid is doing with your car. Hopefully this will keep people from coming back and engaging in this behavior.”
“And we hope the parent takes the corrective action,” Medina said.