PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — Cities across Pierce County are passing legislation to crack down on street racing, but police departments in South King County cities say that might not be enough to eradicate the illegal activity they have been dealing with for years.
Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier wants a regional approach to stopping street racing from “escalating pretty dramatically.”
On a typical weekend, hundreds of cars and spectators will gather across industrial areas and warehouse parking lots Puget Sound to watch cars do “doughnuts,” and “burnouts,” race at high speeds down city streets, and perform “sideshows,” which are car stunts.
“We don’t want someone who’s working the night shift in their place of employment, and all the sudden become terrorized by what’s happening in their parking lot,” Dammeier told The News Tribune.
Dammeier said he has been unsettled by videos he’s viewed of street racers and confrontations. One video he saw on YouTube was taken on Interstate 5. A woman was driving on the freeway when street racers surrounded her.
“There was a woman who just happened to get caught up in it. She was just driving down (Interstate 5) and she was terrorized by it,” he said.
In an effort to curtail the activity, cities across Pierce County have begun to enact strict street-racing legislation.
Sumner is following Fife’s lead. The City Council passed legislation April 5 that expanded designated “no-racing zones” and gave officers the power to impound a car of a driver arrested for racing and reckless driving.
Many Pierce County cities, including Tacoma, Puyallup, Fife and Sumner, have passed “Stay Out of Areas Racing” zones. Street racing and reckless driving is illegal in Washington state law and these cities’ codes, but in SOAR areas, it is also illegal to participate and watch street racing or sideshows.
Sumner communications director Carmen Palmer said the city wanted to give officers “all the tools in the toolbox” to limit street racing. Impounding cars could be used as a last resort if those racing don’t disperse or keep driving recklessly.
A new law in Tacoma went into effect this month prohibiting speed exhibitions, including “squealing tires of a motor vehicle while it is stationary or in motion, rapid acceleration, rapid swerving or weaving, drifting, producing smoke from tire slippage, or leaving visible tire acceleration marks on the surface of the highway or ground.”
Violation of the ordinance is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail, up to a $1,000 fine, or both.
In March, Tacoma City Council also directed City Manager Elizabeth Pauli to collect data on enforcement of the law and to present the collected data no later than six months after the law is implemented.
Many cities do not keep statistics on street racing because it is largely called in and logged as a traffic complaint.
Under Fife’s new law, after an initial arrest and conviction, an offender found in Fife violating a SOAR infraction could lose their car.
“This is geared toward stopping illegal street racing and keeping those who engage in this activity safe,” Fife’s Police Chief Pete Fisher said last month. “We want to keep people from getting people killed or seriously injured and prevent property damage and hope to prevent these events from happening in Fife.”
The impounds start at 15 days for the first violation and up to 30 days for each subsequent SOAR violation.
“Their cars are a big portion of their identity. They put in a lot of work into their car. Losing a car for 15 to 30 days would hurt, and costs associated with that are extremely expensive,” Fisher told The News Tribune last month.
Puyallup has seen an increase in street-racing calls and decided to pass SOAR legislation in its industrial areas.
The county is working on a SOAR bill and impound legislation for street racing, Dammeier said.
In draft ordinances provided by Pierce County, Frederickson’s industrial area between 176th Street East and 208th Street East, Spanaway Park, Fox Island’s boat ramp, portions of Canyon Road, Pacific Avenue and South Fruitland would become a SOAR zone. The legislation would impact all of unincorporated Pierce County.
The county executive wants all of Pierce County to have a unified front against street racing. South Sound 911 emergency operators have been asked to flag all the street-racing calls so data can be tracked across the county.
“We want to have similar ordinances or similar treatment. So when you cross a jurisdictional boundary, you don’t get a radically different world, no treatment,” Dammeier said.
Street-racing events have caused injury and fatalities in the Puget Sound.
Two women were killed after being struck at a November car meetup in Auburn. A Tacoma incident on Jan. 23 highlighted the increase in illegal street racing in Pierce County.
Police responded to a street-racing call where about 100 people gathered on South 9th Street and Pacific Avenue while cars did doughnuts.
Dammeier and Pierce County law enforcement agencies say the sudden increase in street racing is a migration south from cities in South King County, where the illegal activity has been rife.
On Friday and Saturday nights, Kent, Renton and Auburn police officers routinely patrol remote, industrial areas for low-riding, “tricked-out” cars.
Officials in the South King cities agree that working together is imperative in impeding street racers.
Officers cross city borders frequently to help assist neighboring cities with calls.
“They go everywhere. If we chase them out of Renton, they go to Tukwila, Kent and (state Route) 167,” Renton traffic detective Clarence Tolliver said. “It’s one consistent loop.”
Cities in South King County and the State Patrol have formed a regional task force to tackle street racing, which Kent assistant police chief Jarod Kasner said has been helpful.
“This task force has been responsible for the arrests of multiple subjects involved in the planning and organization of illegal street racing throughout the region as well as identification and arrests of many of the involved drivers,” he said.
Auburn police Sgt. James Nordenger is on an email chain with officers from 40 other agencies. The group discusses street-racing meet-ups, potential events and effective tactics.
“They are getting more brazen,” Nordenger said. “So we are trying to crack down on them. You are going to see a lot more collective engagement through law enforcement agencies, especially during the summer.”
Pierce County doesn’t have an official task force, but law enforcement agencies are coordinating to respond to street-racing calls, Dammeier said.
“They have done kind of multi-jurisdictional responses, because to do this, to intervene effectively and safely, you need a number of officers to be involved,” he said.
KING COUNTY TACTICS
Tolliver and Nordenger said people going to street racing and sideshow events are becoming increasingly emboldened, with attendees bringing knives, guns, drugs, alcohol and plans to circumvent police.
Tolliver said he has seen it all, even an 11-year-old in the passenger seat of a racing car.
Renton passed SOAR legislation in 2005 when street racing initially picked up there.
Renton has simply shut down roads in the industrial area. Officers put up a “road closure” barricade sign at 10 p.m. — when their SOAR ordinance kicks in — and monitor passersby.
“What we did is close down the industrial area where they used to race. We have denied them a place to do it,” Tolliver said.
People going to work and transit buses can pass Oakesdale Avenue Southwest at Southwest 27th Street, Southwest 16th Street, and Boeing Roadway, but drivers trying to get through are questioned. Tolliver said street racers will test the barricade.
“They say, ‘Oh, we are lost,’ and they go back to communicate that police are still there,” he said.
Nordenger said Auburn recently closed a road to proactively curb street racing and found it helpful. In January, they closed 15th Street Southwest by the outlet mall. Auburn might continue to keep it closed during the summer months when street racing tends to pick up, Nordenger said.
In 2018, Renton City Council gave police permission to make vehicle impoundments during street-racing events and sideshow events.
Renton tallied 17 vehicle impounds in 2018, zero in 2019 and five in 2020. There have been two impounds this year, Tolliver said.
“Our numbers have gone down tremendously because we enforce it,” he said.
Tolliver said he doesn’t worry about catching perpetrators the night of the event.
“If I get behind a vehicle, and if I have a license plate, I’ll just wait. I’m not going to chase you at high speeds,” he said. “I have time on my side. I’ll go get a warrant and wait for you. Now, cars don’t come here.”
Kent prohibits anyone — driver, passenger or spectator — from attending illegal street racing anywhere in the city with a misdemeanor citation, Kasner said.
Kent has passed several laws used to deter illegal street racing and spectators, including a misdemeanor for “disorderly conduct and obstructing traffic,” “malicious mischief” of roadway and property damage, and criminal trespassing. Kent has had a SOAR ordinance in place since 2001.
The Kent Police Department “frequently” impounds vehicles used in illegal street racing and of those in attendance, the assistant chief said.
“Our experience has been that when the unlawful street race attendance ordinance is enforced at a specific location we often see a corresponding decrease in illegal street races, if not an outright elimination of illegal street racing, at that location in the future,” Kasner said in an email.
Nordenger wants a zero-tolerance policy for street racing. Currently, Auburn police can cite attendees and drivers with a misdemeanor for reckless driving and breaking the SOAR ordinance. Their cars can be impounded the night of the street racing or sideshow event. The maximum penalty is a $1,000 fine and up to 90 days in jail.
“There’s drugs, alcohol, guns, fights, and property damage. It’s not just the reckless driving in it of itself,” he said. “I would like to see them go to jail, but we might just do an administrative booking. This is getting so far out of hand, I think they should all go to jail. That goes for our observers as well.”
Tolliver said if cities really want to curb street racing, police departments need to be better funded.
“City governments need to dig in their pockets to pay overtime to take care of racers that weekend and enforce racing ordinances,” the Renton detective said.
Nordenger said local law enforcement agencies need to come together to solve the issue.
“We need to do a lot of public education. Most of these kids and young adults are doing thi,s and people are getting hurt, property damaged and people are getting killed,” he said. “We need to come together with community leaders and law enforcement agencies to not only combat it, but to reach out to these people and say help us solve this issue.”
Some aren’t optimistic.
“I don’t think it will ever go away,” Tolliver said. “I know when years ago a speedway was offered in Auburn for free or cheap, but a lot of kids don’t want to do that because of the rush of being on city streets and getting caught. But I don’t think they realize how dangerous it is until it is too late.”
Dammeier wants to continue exploring options in Pierce County. He is looking to connect street racers with other car enthusiasts to provide a legal and safe way to do some of the activities currently happening on public roads.