In nearly every major city in America—and in many smaller communities and towns—law enforcement officers must deal with a phenomenon called “sideshows” and the related and resultant street racing that spring from it.
The popular “The Fast and Furious” franchise of movies have glorified the activity of driving dangerously—usually late at night and almost always with young people behind the wheels of souped-up cars.
At many street racing events, there are young people standing in a semicircle in an intersection with their cars parked around them, drinking booze, consuming illegal drugs, dancing, and blocking access to the intersection. To them it’s a big party, but these events represent a significant danger to public safety.
Cops everywhere must know how to intervene and interdict these street racing events. A quick scan of headlines on POLICEMag.com offers dozens of cases in which police were called to break up sideshows.
In March 2021, the Aurora (CO) Police Department said in a tweet that as many as 600 vehicles intentionally blocked a freeway and the shoulders beside the road in an effort to prevent police from getting to a “sideshow” at which there were reports of fireworks and smoke and weapons being waved.
A month earlier, officers with the Kansas City (MO) Police Department used spike strips to interrupt a street racing and sideshow event. KCPD said officers wrote 67 tickets, towed 18 vehicles, and recovered one gun at the scene.
At many other events that have been reported across the country in just the last few months, “spike strips” have been deployed.
While these devices are effective at bringing a vehicle to a stop, it is altogether too common for officers to be injured or killed while deploying them. Other alternative technologies are being explored, but at the very core of the DNA of sideshows and street races is danger, mayhem, and uncertainty.
Safety and Sideshows
Many of the people behind the wheels of the souped-up vehicles at street races fancy themselves to be professional stunt drivers. They’re not.
They’re hooligans and ruffians pushing themselves and their vehicles beyond their limits.
It is not uncommon for drivers performing “donuts” or “ghostriding” (the act of getting out of the moving vehicle and dancing on the hood as it rolls forward with nobody at the wheel) to injure themselves or the spectators who crowd around the stunts being performed.
Further, many of the participants at these events are armed, and often those guns come out—at times with fatal consequences.
Finally, sideshows pose a significant danger to those law enforcement officers sent to the scene to break up the illegal activities, take into custody the violators, and impound the vehicles. Just rolling up on such a large crowd has its hazards. But knowing that there are firearms present and that those cars in motion could quickly be turned into a two-and-a-half ton ballistic missiles, necessitates heightened awareness of the environment (for starters) and a call for backup (for certain).
Deploying spike strips alongside a quiet country road has its own well-documented danger—doing so with a hundred people standing in the near vicinity is perilous at best.
Strategies and Tactics
Sideshows first appeared in Oakland, CA, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They began as impromptu auto shows, with American “muscle cars” parked in a line and set on display for people to appreciate the all-leather interiors, the chrome cowlings under the hood, and the detailed paint jobs on the exteriors. However, the events quickly devolved into what we see today. Suffice it to say that the Oakland Police Department has had a considerable period of time to refine its interdiction strategies and tactics.
Here are some insights from some of the agencies that are dealing with street racing and sideshows.
Oakland: In late April, the Oakland Police Department announced a special detail to address the phenomenon of sideshows taking place on the streets of the city. In a tweet, the OPD said that the “violent, disruptive, and illegal behavior” found at sideshows “will not be tolerated.”
The Twitter post featured a video from Deputy Chief Nishant Joshi in which he said, “We do not tolerate sideshow activity in the City of Oakland. You are welcome to come here to enjoy our sights, our scenery, and our restaurants, but if you participate in sideshow activity, your vehicle will be towed.
“If you think you’ve gotten away with sideshow in the past, there are those that will tell you, we have come to their homes and taken their vehicles after a sideshow. Please, come to our city to enjoy it—don’t participate in sideshow.”
In an interview Chief Joshi said, “We have a long term goal in mind that includes working with our community, our city partners, and other law enforcement agencies.”
Sacramento: In August 2020, officers with the Sacramento Police Department were surrounded and attacked by people in attendance at an illegal sideshow event. The perpetrators closed in on responding squad cars and hurled bottles, rocks, and fireworks at the arriving police officers. The agency has dealt with similar officer—and public—safety issues in recent years as sideshows are promoted via social media posts and pop up in residential neighborhoods and empty retail store parking lots.
“As the weather begins to warm up, the Sacramento Police Department often sees increased reports of sideshow activity,” said Officer Ryan Woo, public information officer for the Sacramento Police Department. “Dangerous driving and reckless behavior associated with these incidents can result in serious injury to drivers, spectators, and our community. Recently, one sideshow in September 2020 resulted in a spectator being seriously injured.”
Sacramento PD is taking a multi-pronged approach to sideshow interdiction. In addition to traffic enforcement and towing vehicles at the scene, SPD is conducting follow-up investigations on some sideshow participants. “These follow-up investigations allow officers to obtain a warrant so that enforcement action, such as towing a vehicle, can be taken safely at a later date,” Officer Woo said.
Kansas City: Officers with the Kansas City (MO) Police Department have—like cities and towns across the country—seen an increase in instances of street races and sideshows. As a result, in early March, the agency worked with the mayor to propose new penalties against participating drivers, including $150 in fines and up to 30 days in jail for a first offense. A second violation doubles the penalties to $300 and 60 days behind bars. Spectators of such events could be fined up to $100.
“We have had numerous issues with street racing,” said David Jackson, public information officer for the Kansas City Police Department. “We have had everything from traffic crashes to shootings. Recently, street racers knocked down a telephone/electric utility pole causing live wires to hit the street…ultimately leading to an officer being electrocuted and seriously injured.”
Jackson concluded, “We have tried to work with racers to conduct the shows in a safe private space, we have sent letters to participants asking them to stop, and we have conducted strict enforcement of ticketing and applicable towing of cars.”
Aurora: In connection with the March sideshow incident in Aurora, CO, earlier this year, the Aurora PD has announced potential charges against two people who they say played a major role in organizing, and participating in the event. Of the two, one died in an automobile crash earlier in April, so charges against him were dropped. A male juvenile still faces charges of reckless driving, driving with a canceled license, and speeding. The agency said it aims to continue to press charges against participants in such events.
“The Aurora Police Department takes incidents of street racing and roadway takeovers seriously,” said Lieutenant Mike Hanifin, commanding officer of the traffic section. “This conduct will not be tolerated. We respond within the confines of policy, procedure, and case law in response to illegal street racing. We will vigorously investigate and hold those responsible for planning, orchestrating, and supporting these illegal events accountable to our laws and ordinances.
One way the City of Aurora is working to hold people accountable for street racing and sideshow incidents is by holding the registered owner of the vehicle responsible for its use in illegal activity.
“It is not always possible, practical, or safe for our officers to intervene and effect a traffic stop or arrest in the moment,” Lieutenant Hanifin said. “However, this will give us the ability to track the registered owner down at a later time, in a more controlled and safe manner, to hold them accountable for the conduct involving their vehicle, regardless whether or not we could prove they were the driver.”
Dallas: The Dallas Police Department recently formed its Speeding and Racing Task Force and it didn’t take long for the deployment of this team to have an impact on public safety. On a single night in late March, the task force arrested 33 people, conducted 209 traffic stops, issued 181 traffic citations, and seized six illegal firearms.
“These organized take-over, reckless driving events and illegal street races have resulted in property damage and injuries—including death—to participants, citizens and spectators,” the Dallas PD said. “These events also pose an increased threat toward law
“Officers are extremely careful when dealing with large groups of street racers and spectators and are encouraged to work as a team and take enforcement action when reasonably safe to do so,” the Dallas PD added.
In its enforcement efforts, DPD is constantly sharing information with other agencies in order to keep everyone up-to-date. “The Dallas Police Department is partnering with other local law enforcement agencies and discussing various investigative and operational best practices techniques to increase safety for officers and residents,” the agency said.
When researching this article, I found that gleaning information about deaths and injuries proved to be a frustrating endeavor. While there is no central repository for such data, there are numerous headlines from around the country that read something like “1 Dead, 2 Injured at Sideshow” and “Video Shows Sideshow Crash That Injured Spectators” and “Police Arrest Teen In Connection With Sideshow Shooting” and “Guns, Drugs Seized at ‘Sideshow’ Saturday Night.”
What’s clear from these headlines is that sideshows and street racing are a growing problem nationwide. And they can result in injuries to and deaths of drivers, spectators, officers, and even uninvolved motorists and pedestrians. Which means law enforcement must find new ways to control the mayhem caused by these event and take steps to prevent them.
Doug Wyllie is contributing web editor for POLICE.