Aug. 30—For several years, police around the region have been warning about the dangers posed by the illegal use of dirt bikes and ATVs on public streets.
Those concerns were realized on Monday when a dirt bike with two occupants ran a red light and slammed into a car turning into a Groton shopping plaza, killing 24-year-old passenger Tiara Wheeler of Norwich and seriously injuring the bike's operator ― Scott Whipple, 25, of Coachman Pike, Mashantucket.
Whipple remained in critical condition on Wednesday at Yale New Haven Hospital, a hospital spokesman said.
Wheeler is the daughter of former New London High School and University of Rhode Island basketball star Tyson Wheeler, who is now an assistant coach at Brown University.
Groton Town Police Chief L.J. Fusaro said the investigation into the crash is ongoing. Detectives are looking at potential charges for those who made up the group of nearly a dozen ATV and dirt bike riders who opted to leave the scene with the crashed bike rather than help the victims.
Removing evidence from the scene, for example, might be viewed by police as justifying a tampering with evidence charge. Fusaro said any potential charges would come at the outcome of discussion between investigators and the state's attorney's office.
The issue of illegal dirt bikes and ATVs in Groton is not as big as it is in some other cities but just as frustrating for police who are being forced to come up with creative ways to catch the riders and identify the bikes, Fusaro said.
Dirt bikes and ATVs are designed for off-road use and often lack the required safety equipment such as signal lights or brake lights needed to legally register a vehicle or ride on the road.
Riders sometimes taunt police
The bikes are rarely registered, sometimes stolen, and often operated by youth who brazenly perform tricks, record themselves in video and thumb their nose, or make other hand gestures, at police. In addition, many wear masks to obscure their identity.
Fusaro said it leaves police to identify the bikes and their riders who often cross town lines.
"Our work has just started to identify the people involved," Fusaro said.
It's an issue that led to the passage of ordinances in New London and Norwich that impose fines for illegal riders and allow police to seize bikes. But police in those cities admit it's simply not that easy to catch the riders.
Just last month more than a dozen ATVs and dirt bikes gathered at the intersection of Colman and Broad streets in New London, blocking traffic, weaving in and out of traffic, performing wheelies and driving on the sidewalks. Multiple police agencies were called in to try and control the situation, which led to the bikes scattering.
A 28-year-old Groton man, Dwayne Sablon, was charged with assault on a police after his bike struck an officer, causing a minor injury.
"The ordinance gave us more options but by no means prevents the issue, which is still a threat to public safety as it is in other communities across the state," New London Police Chief Brian Wright said. "The tragedy in Groton is a prime indicator of that."
Fusaro said there are limits on when and where a police officer can engage in a pursuit and illegal operation of a dirt bike is not one of them. Groton Town Police follow the state's pursuit policy developed by Police Officer Standards and Training Council that bars chases under many circumstances unless there is a "threat of imminent death or serious physical injury," to the officer or members of the public.
Fusaro said it's simply not a good idea to risk endangering the public in most cases.
For example, if an illegal rider being pursued goes through an intersection and ends up killing themselves or someone else, the blame will be on the officer, Fusaro said.
Is Police Accountability Bill to blame?
State Rep. Greg Howard, R-Stonington, a police detective in Stonington, attributes a lot of the bad behavior around the state, especially on the roadways, to low morale among police that has led to a lack of police enforcement of traffic violations and emboldened individuals to keep up the bad behavior.
He traces some of the issue to the 2020 passage of the Police Accountability Bill that, among other things, limits immunity in some civil case where an officer violates an individual's civil rights.
And while an officer could only be held civilly liable in a lawsuit in cases of "malicious, wanton or willful" acts, Howard said the qualified immunity issue is not well understood and remains untested in the courts, leaving some officers to err on the side of caution while performing their normal duties.
Howard said the act, coupled with calls for defunding police, led to many police feel as thought they are not being supported.
"Whether it's on paper, in a bill or statute, police officers in the state overwhelmingly don't feel like they're being supported by the state," Howard said. "Until it's tested in the court you're going to see officers hesitate to do a lot of things."
"It all boils down to the state legislature being soft on crime," Howard said.
State Rep. Anthony Nolan, D-New London, a recently retired New London police officer, said the Police Accountability Act offers some reassurance to the public about abuses of power among police and called it "baloney" that officers are hesitant to perform their jobs.
"What are you doing that would have to be worried of getting in trouble?" Nolan said.
Nolan said the state's police departments ought to be looking at newer technology, such as the use of drones, to tackle the issue of illegal bike riding.
State Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton, said she is not sure the state legislature has the answer to the problems of illegal dirt bikes but said she is willing to consider ideas about increased penalties.
"These are typically young people who think they're invincible," she said. "Do we need more money for programming for youth? I would rather invest in a program than give these youth records and penalties they can't afford and land them in jail."
"What we really need is a change in behavior in these young people," Conley said.
Fusaro said that the public can aid the ongoing investigation and encourages anyone from the public with information about Monday's crash to contact police at (860) 441-6712.