The Atlanta Police Department will use “security checkpoints” to crack down on street racers in Buckhead and elsewhere this weekend, while the City Council prepares to seek tougher state laws, including the ability to seize racers’ cars.
Street racing has plagued the city since the pandemic shutdowns reduced traffic and was among the major drivers of a new “Buckhead Security Plan.” The latest tactics were discussed in a Dec. 3 virtual community meeting hosted by Buckhead-area City Councilmember J.P. Matzigkeit and including fellow Councilmember Howard Shook, Fulton County Sheriff-elected Pat Labat, House District 51 state Rep.-elect Shea Roberts (D-Sandy Springs), and officials from APD, the Georgia State Patrol and the Cobb County Police Department.
APD and GSP have been collaborating on weekend street racing crackdowns. APD officials said the numbers of racers in groups is decreasing — down to 50 or 60 instead of hundreds — but the gatherings still pop up. The latest to draw complaints in Buckhead was around Northside Parkway near the Lovett School and the Cobb County line the weekend of Nov. 27, where police response was admittedly slow.
APD Deputy Chief Celeste Murphy said the plans for “enhanced field operations” on Friday and Saturday, Dec. 4-5, would include “safety checkpoints” — a technique APD could not immediately describe — near known racing hotspots. APD also has been erecting temporary barricades on some streets to head off racers, officials said. Murphy said APD is also stepping up patrols around known after-hours or problem nightlife spots.
What officials really want to do is impound or permanently seize race cars. Maj. Andrew Senzer, the commander of APD’s Zone 2 precinct in Buckhead, said a law “where we could hold their precious possessions — their vehicles — that would be a tremendous help.”
Early this year, the council passed a new ordinance widely touting as allowing such impounding as well as outlawing spectators. But in fact, the ordinance did no such thing, in part because state law does not allow cities, or anyone, to make such lengthy property seizures. Senzer said the ordinance “came out with a lot of fanfare” but has ended up “challenging” for APD to actually enforce.
For months, city officials allowed the misunderstanding to continue, apparently hoping to scare people, but now are seeking to fix it by calling on the Georgia General Assembly to change the laws.
APD has another car-seizing idea in mind. Deputy Chief Michael O’Connor said that race-car mufflers modified to make loud noise actually draw more complaints than the racing itself. He said APD is seeking a city Law Department opinion on whether an existing law that bans muffler modification could allow police to seize a vehicle for a muffler inspection.
“We’re going to see if that’s legal and, if so, we are going to implement that as policy,” he said.
Maj. Robert Fisher from the Cobb County Police claimed the law already allows police to do that for another modification, the removal of brakes on rear wheels to facilitate stunt driving. But no attorney was present to give a professional opinion.
Changes to state law often require significant support from other government bodies. Labat claimed there might be a challenge from some unnamed members of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners. He said “the pushback I’ve been getting at the commission level … is, the community wants less enforcement.”
Some of the roughly 60 attendees asked about APD’s “no-chase” policy of not pursuing criminals in vehicles due to the possibility of a dangerous accident. APD officials said the policy is under review, but almost certainly would not be revised to allow the chasing of people for the relatively minor crime of street racing.
O’Connor also addressed a claim circulated by City Council President Felicia Moore that street racing is a “movement” or “form of protest” due to its use of rebellious names for gatherings on social media. O’Connor said that at APD, “we don’t see any type of formal protest-type activity [with the racers]… That’s not the case.”
Another question is whether racing might die down on its when the pandemic presumably ends, which could be before state legislation comes along. Senzer said his officers are actually having success at making arrests for a variety of crimes, such as car thefts, but have trouble making a dent in crime rates because the pandemic puts defendants in legal limbo after that. COVID-19 has closed courtrooms and jails sometimes turn away low-level detainees for safety reasons.
“We’re faced with an emboldened population of criminals who have not been held accountable for anything for the past five months,” Senzer said.