East County law enforcement agencies are taking a fast and furious approach to cracking down on sideshows.
Sideshows are illegal gatherings in which groups of drivers take over intersections, city streets, stretches of busy freeways or parking lots to do tricks with their cars.
Across the state, COVID-19 has caused a sharp rise in illegal street racing activity as drivers took advantage of roads emptied by stay-at-home orders. In 2020, the California Highway Patrol responded to more than 25,000 calls involving illegal street racing activity statewide, an increase of more than 3,500 calls from the year before, according to District 46 Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel’s office.
Legislators have previously taken action against sideshows on the state level, with Gov. Gavin Newsom signing Assembly Bill 2000 last September. The bill expands the definition of a sideshow to include parking lots, where previous laws had limited the definition to exhibitions occurring on highways, and establishes penalties for those convicted of participating, including jail time and fines.
On a local level, each city has taken a hands-on approach to deterring sideshows from occurring.
Brentwood Police take both a proactive and reactive approach to combating sideshows, according to Sgt. Christopher Peart.
As a result, the city has seen less activity in the last couple of years, he said. In 2020 and 2021, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, there were more sideshows, which Peart attributed, in part, to people wanting to get out of the house.
Peart also noted that sideshows are a seasonal activity, with fewer occurrences in the winter than in the summer, when they can occur as frequently as once a week.
“This is an issue that plagues every city,” he said. “It’s not unique to Brentwood.”
One tool at Brentwood’s disposal that has allowed police to curb sideshow activity is its partnership with other agencies – including Oakley, Antioch and Pittsburg. Sideshows often begins in one city, Peart explained, and moves to the next city when local law enforcement clears them out. The communication from other law enforcement departments allows Brentwood to anticipate sideshows before they are able to happen.
In some situations, proactive policing is not enough to stop a sideshow from developing, Peart said. They can develop “rapidly” and quickly become out of control. In these instances, the focus shifts to community safety and making sure residents are not caught in a dangerous situation.
Peart recalled a recent incident that took over the intersection of Sand Creek Road and Highway 4 in which 200-300 cars were part of the sideshow, leaving the department’s traffic unit outnumbered. The solution was the use of the department’s drones to capture vehicle information so that a judge could have the vehicles seized.
Another resource Peart expects to be helpful is an annual grant the department receives for traffic enforcement. This year, it is $101,000, he said. That money goes to a variety of programs, including DUI enforcement, general traffic enforcement and diversion of sideshows.
According to Peart, assigning officers to break up a sideshow can cost the department up to $3,000 per incident. Having that funding come from a grant frees up the department’s budget for non-traffic policing without sacrificing the traffic department’s ability to enforce.
“We make every effort to follow up on sideshow activity,” Lt. Walter O’Grodnick said in September when asked about the department’s approach to sideshow activity. “We want to see this type of activity curbed.”
At the Dec. 13 City Council meeting, Police Chief Tim Herbert discussed some of the challenges the department faces.
“These events are very disturbing to our community,” he said in reference to a large sideshow that took place over the summer. “But when we have 100 [or more] vehicles with people discharging firearms into the air and four police officers and one sergeant to handle it, it’s not safe.”
Although mutual aid from neighboring agencies has proven helpful in breaking up sideshows, Herbert said, a much more effective method of dealing with them is to stop them before they can begin. To that end, Brentwood police partner and communicate with other regional agencies to be aware of sideshows in the greater East County so they may shut them down before they occur.
The city of Oakley has passed an ordinance that allows them to take action against both participants and spectators of illegal sideshows. Any person who violates this ordinance could be found guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to jail time and a $1,000 fine.
In July of 2022, Police Chief Paul Beard gave a presentation to the City Council on sideshows and their potential to result in damage to vehicles, public and private property damage as well as injury or death to participants and onlookers and secondary effects such as blocking roadways for first responders.
“We did have a sideshow here in Oakley where one of our officers was attacked,” Beard said during his presentation. “He was not injured. They began to descend on his car, but he was able to back out of the scene. A shot was fired. We don’t believe it was at our officer, but we believe it was more or less just a shot in the air.”
Following the April incident, there was a pursuit, and a stolen vehicle and stolen gun were recovered, according to Beard.
Despite this, there have been no documented sideshows in Oakley as far back as September 2022, according to Beard. He credits this, in part, to the city’s focus on traffic enforcement as a priority.
“I am getting ready to start a process that will fill a vacancy in my traffic enforcement unit,” Beard said on what action his department would take if sideshows were to become a problem in Oakley. “Once that position is filled I will utilize all of my traffic officers to conduct enforcement efforts if we were to get any such activity.”
Sideshow participants face having their vehicles impounded for 30 days, with a $3,000 cost to recover them as well as a $300 citation.
Mayor Lamar Thorpe declared his city to be a “no sideshow zone” in 2021. However, enforcement of this declaration has presented a challenge to law enforcement, with large sideshow events taking place in May 2022 and January of 2023.
The May incident resulted in an Antioch police vehicle being rendered inoperable and other police vehicles being pelted with bottles by sideshow spectators and participants, according to officials at the time.
During the Jan. 6 incident, Antioch Police towed several vehicles and issued citations during an illegal sideshow on Lone Tree Way, according to officials. The sideshow took place in the parking lot of Hobby Lobby on Lone Tree Way. Citations were issued to both participants and onlookers.
“These incidents bring great danger to responding officers, participants and bystanders,” Antioch Police Chief Steve Ford said during a May press conference. “Violent, disruptive behavior will not be tolerated. To those from out of town, you are welcome to enjoy our city, parks and amenities. But if you engage in sideshow activity, your vehicle will be towed. Going forward, there will be a zero-tolerance approach to sideshows in the city of Antioch, and all resources at our disposal will be used to mitigate these activities.”
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