In the wake of a New Year’s Day incident on Atwood Avenue that left an officer injured and led to nine arrests, Cranston Police and Mayor Ken Hopkins have put the use of ATVs, dirt bikes and other illegal vehicles on city roadways in the crosshairs.
“This has become a big problem here in Cranston … We want to be prepared for the warmer months,” Chief of Police Col. Michael Winquist told reporters during a March 5 press conference at the department’s Garfield Avenue headquarters.
The chief made reference to “creative solutions” and “investigative techniques” the department has employed both in the investigation of the January incident and elsewhere to address the off-road vehicles issue, although he was tight-lipped in terms of specifics.
The new enforcement push, he said, comes amid an increase in reports to police as the weather turns and based on feedback received during a recent community meeting.
“This behavior that’s going on is illegal,” he said. “A lot of these operators are operating in a reckless manner that’s endangering the motoring public and pedestrians … we will not tolerate it in this city.”
Hopkins said he is taking a handful of immediate steps, through executive order, to address the issue. City ordinance amendments are also being developed to enhance enforcement and deter the operators of the illegal vehicles, he said.
“I’m here today to reinforce my commitment to public safety here in the city of Cranston,” the mayor said.
Specifically, Hopkins’s executive order requires stepped-up enforcement of an existing ordinance that prohibits the use of illegal vehicles on city streets.
That ordinance, under the formal listing 10.40.030 and heading “Riding of mini-bikes, etc., on public property,” reads: “No person shall ride, drive or otherwise use a mini-bike, non-street legal or unregistered motorcycle, go-cart, or other like vehicle on or upon any public property of the city. Registered vehicles only shall be allowed on public streets, parking lots or other areas designed for regular traffic, unless prohibited by the chief of police.”
The mayor’s order requires that “any such vehicle or ATV be immediately impounded and subject to forfeiture, subject to legal action, in addition to any civil penalties imposed by the Municipal Court, as a result of the illegal activity and operation of these vehicles.”
Hopkins’s order also “immediately requests” that any licensed gas station in the city “refuse service” to any “unregistered and non-street legal recreational type vehicles and … cease the sale of motor vehicle fuels to these vehicles upon knowledge of their presence at their place of business.” Service stations are further asked to “immediately contact the Cranston Police Department of such activity and the presence of such illegal vehicles.”
Questioned after the press conference about the feasibility of asking gas stations – some with a single clerk – to aid in the enforcement push, Hopkins said the Police Department will be responsive and active in providing assistance.
“Call the Cranston Police Department and we’ll respond,” he said.
Aside from the steps outlined in the executive order, Hopkins said his administration is working with Winquist and City Council President Chris Paplauskas to develop ordinance changes that would additionally strengthen the city’s hand in terms of enforcement.
Paplauskas on Monday said while some specifics of the ordinance proposal are being fine-tuned, the measure will incorporate fines for illegal riders as well as codified authority for police to seize and destroy vehicles that are improperly on city streets.
The council president expects the proposed ordinance changes to be introduced as new business during the body’s regular meeting later this month. The proposals would then be forwarded to the Ordinance Committee for consideration in April.
“I support the [mayor’s] executive order and share the same sentiment the colonel has,” Paplauskas said. “Basically, it comes down to a public safety issue. The roads are for registered vehicles, period.”
Some concerns have been raised over the mayor’s approach. On Saturday, Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan, who serves as the minority leader for the council’s Democrats, issued a statement questioning the use of the executive order to institute some of the policy changes.
“While I appreciate and share his concern on the issue, I am disappointed that Mayor Hopkins chose to enact this policy via executive action rather than through a collaborative effort with the City Council,” Donegan’s statement reads. “Unfortunately, this is becoming a recurring theme early on in his administration. Members of the City Council should not be left to learn of shifts in public policy, COVID vaccination efforts, or anything in between, from press releases and media articles. We are the elected legislative body of our City and the Mayor should at least make an effort to work together on issues; I urge him to do so going forward.”
Neighboring Providence has been at the center of the debate over off-road vehicles, particularly in the wake of an October incident in which 24-year-old Jhamal Gonsalves was seriously injured after being pursued by police while operating a moped on Elmwood Avenue near the Cranston line.
The capital city already has an ordinance in place authorizing police to seize and destroy off-road vehicles found illegal operating on roadway. That law was adopted in 2017.
Recently, however, Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza has expressed support for state legislative action allowing communities to legalize off-road vehicles for street use through a new regulatory structure.
During last week’s press conference, Winquist rejected that course of action.
“I do not believe that’s a proper approach, in my opinion,” he said.
The chief said many of the off-road vehicle operators do not have motorcycle or driver’s licenses. He also expressed skepticism that a new regulatory structure would effectively address concerns over insurance coverage.
“They like to be anonymous,” he said. “I have no reason to believe that they will actually follow the traffic laws.”
The chief also said he does not believe the creation of a dedicated space for off-road vehicle riders to operate would deter their on-road activities.
“I think it’s thrill seeking, is really what it is,” he said.
Winquist additionally asserted that some operators use the vehicles to engage in other illicit activity, such as transporting weapons or drugs. Many of the vehicles themselves, he said, are stolen and sold online.
To support this, officials during the press conference displayed a photo – which the chief said was taken from social media – showing an off-road vehicle operator from Pawtucket brandishing a “large caliber” firearm.
Winquist said the operators of the off-road vehicles frequently communicate and organize via social media, moving through streets in groups as large as 50 or 100 riders.
“It can be very intimidating to the public,” he said, citing blocked intersections and damage to legal motor vehicles as frequent outcomes.
Referencing the New Year’s Day incident, Winquist added: “Everybody seems to think they’re all kids. Our arrests were adults from North Providence, Warwick and other communities … The idea that these are these young kids out for a Sunday ride can’t be furthest from the truth.”
Winquist said he has been in contact with his Providence counterpart, Col. Hugh Clements, regarding the off-road vehicles issue.
Hopkins said he, too, has spoken with his counterpart, who he said has been receptive to further discussions and coordination. The mayor said he informed Elorza of last week’s announcement ahead of time.
Concerns have also been raised regarding damage done to public land and conversation areas by off-road vehicles.
Doug Doe, president of the West Bay Land Trust, provided the Herald with images taken at Knight Farm, located off Hope and Burlingame roads, last month showing significant damage and disturbance from off-road vehicles that had created trails.
“Providence has a strong ORV ordinance that should [serve] as a model for Cranston,” Doe wrote. “Only the threat of serious fines and vehicle confiscation will cause the abusers to think twice.”
Winquist said police have worked with the Department of Public Works to block access to the illegal off-road vehicle trail at Knight Farm. He said the new enforcement measures and planned ordinance changes would enhance the ability of officials to crack down on the improper use of the vehicles on public land as well.
“We’ll be strictly enforcing that,” he said.