FIFE, Wash. — Fife is considering adding a tough penalty meant to hit illegal street racers where it hurts: Impounding their cars.
The city’s police chief, Pete Fisher, wants to propose an ordinance that would allow authorities to impound the cars of drivers found racing or performing other “street exhibition” stunts like doing doughnuts, burnouts or drifting.
Fife, Puyallup, Sumner and other areas of Pierce County have seen a recent surge in illegal street racing. Police departments believe part of the reason for the uptick is due to stricter laws in South King County cities, which is pushing the events into Pierce County.
Fife’s impound legislation, if passed, would be the first in Pierce County.
“So we are looking at toughening up the ordinance, but so (it’s) still constitutional,” Fisher told The Puyallup Herald. “At least anecdotally, in talking to agencies who have impounded cars that are raced, is that the street race participants are taken quite a bit by surprise, and it seems to have more of an impact than just the enforcement itself.”
City Manager Hyun Kim said the City Council is ready to pass stricter measures after consulting the city attorney.
“I don’t think there is any discomfort from our city council on these laws. Most are collaborating and are looking at additional steps,” Hyun Kim said.
The Fife City Council has already started to bolster the existing street racing code. Council passed an emergency ordinance during its Feb. 23 meeting to expand the existing street racing law.
The emergency ordinance added “drifting,” which is oversteering a car to lose traction in a controlled manner, and “maneuverability,” — speeding through turns — to the definition of “speed exhibition,” or accelerating a vehicle to a dangerously high rate of speed.
The city and the police department said more amendments would be proposed in the coming weeks in the effort to deter street racing.
“Fife is like many industrial cities with many warehouse districts and commercial tenants where it’s busy during the day and a lull during the night and that’s inviting for folks to come out,” Kim said. “The reason for the emergency ordinance is that we were seeing more activities from social groups to try to launch events.
“If you are coming here to take over our intersections or warehouse district, we don’t want you here.”
The police chief said street racing can occur in Fife multiple times a week or once every two weeks, depending on weather. Fisher estimates that street racing events can draw up to 300 cars at a time.
“I do think the weather is going to start getting better, and we definitely see a large uptick in these events through the spring and summertime for sure,” Fisher said.
He does not believe the new amendment is enough to deter illegal street racing.
“That’s step one. We are still looking at other ways to make the ordinance more robust and more of a deterrent,” Fisher said.
Fife passed a law in February 2020 making it illegal to watch or participate in illegal street racing in “no racing zones,” which include Industry Drive East, Frank Albert Road East, and 8th Street East from 54th Avenue East to 62nd Avenue East.
Since enacting the street racing law, Fife police have made 43 arrests, Fisher said.
If charged, a judge can ban the defendant from those areas, Kim said.
Puyallup, Sumner, Kent, Renton and Auburn have passed similar laws, also known as “SOAR,” or “Stay Out of Areas of Racing.”
The 30-officer department has started authorizing overtime to patrol industrial areas. Fisher said he isn’t sure how many overtime hours have been approved for street racing, because overtime isn’t tracked by violation. When the police department hears of a planned event, Fisher said he asks officers to work overtime.
Between two and five officers are on duty at a time, but the fewer the officers respond to a street racing call, the more dangerous it can be, Fisher said.
“We do notice an uptick in the aggressive nature of the race attendees when we only have two or three officers on duty, and they’re trying to keep them from engaging in that activity,” the police chief said.
Being a bystander is one of the most dangerous aspects of street racing events, Fisher said.
“You can see they are drifting with people in close proximity. If someone gets hit by that car, that’s lethal,” the police chief said.
A Tacoma incident in January highlighted the increase in illegal street racing in Pierce County.
On Jan. 23, Tacoma police responded to a street racing call where about 100 people gathered on South 9th Street and Pacific Avenue while cars did doughnuts. One responding officer, Khanh Phan, revved the engine of his patrol SUV and drove forward, running over at least one person and injuring six.
Fisher said the county has been instrumental in leading the charge across jurisdictions. Executive Bruce Dammeier has pulled together elected officials and law enforcement from across the county to discuss regional strategies on street racing, Pierce County communications director Libby Catalinich said.
“The group has met a few times, but their plan is still under development,” she said in an email.