New police unit formed to crackdown on illegal ATVs in Providence

Crackdown fulfills a top campaign promise of Mayor Brett Smiley

By: - April 5, 2023 2:46 pm
Providence Mayor Brett Smiley (left) speaks to the media with Police Chief Oscar Perez.

Providence Mayor Brett Smiley (left) announces the launch of the Providence Police Community Response Team on April 5. Next to Smiley is Providence Police Chief Oscar Perez. (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

PROVIDENCE — With warm weather on the way, Providence officials are looking to crack down on illegal dirtbikes and all-terrain vehicles (ATV) before they hit the streets.

Mayor Brett Smiley and Police Chief Oscar Perez on Wednesday announced the launch of the Providence Police Community Response Team — a five-member team of police officers who will investigate and target those who store and sell these vehicles.

“It’s a new day in Providence,” Smiley said. “What might have been tolerated in the past is no longer being tolerated.”

Activity will be investigated through the use of technology like body cams and other video footage, as well as social media, undercover police work, and information obtained through the city’s Community Relations Bureau.



Along with the new unit, residents and businesses can anonymously report the illegal street vehicles to the city’s tip line at (401) 680-8288 or via email at [email protected].

Perez said this new team will not cost additional money, as it will use officers already working for the police department. He declined to specify the district where the unit will be assigned.

An ATV on pavement (Getty image)

The unit also intends to coordinate with the Rhode Island State Police, nearby municipalities, and the Office of the Rhode Island Attorney General in any investigations.

“This has been a long-standing issue,” Perez said. “Every Providence police officer knows the real dangers and impacts the use of illegal ATVs and motorcycles has had in our neighborhoods.”

Under state law, it is illegal to operate any off-highway vehicle on public roads, freeways, highways, interstates, shoulders, outside slopes, median banks, or the right-of-way of any road.

Vehicles are permitted to operate at off-road parks in more rural parts of the state, where Smiley recommends city residents take their ATVs and bikes.

“It’s hard for me to envision where in a dense urban environment we could find a safe off-road riding environment,” he said.

Getting ATVs and riding groups off the streets has been an ongoing issue for the city and was one of Smiley’s top priorities in his mayoral campaign. The mayor said that vehicles are unsafe to riders, degrade quality of life in neighborhoods and are bad for business.

“The entire community is the victim to crimes like these,” he said. “This administration is going to have a serious, proactive, sustained commitment to making progress on this challenge.”

Potential for discrimination

Though the mayor sees the new police unit as a proactive step against a city nuisance, Black Lives Matter RI PAC and the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island see  the strategy as discriminatory to people of color.

“We know that turning civil traffic offenses into criminal ones in this context will disproportionately affect young people and Black and Brown neighborhoods, have a severely discriminatory impact, and undermine the critical need for greater equity in the criminal justice system,” the groups wrote in a joint statement.

Both groups agreed for the need to create a safer Providence, but expressed concern over the use of video technology.

“The potential use of these cameras to track and target ATV users should be extremely troubling to anybody concerned about privacy,” the statement read. “That Providence is promoting the use of an anonymous tip line to report any ATV or dirt bike possession, even on a private residence or in a private garage, only enhances these surveillance concerns.”

“We will be validating all credible tips,” Smiley said. “The way in which the community can help us most is to help inform on where these illegal bikes are taking place.”


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Christopher Shea
Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea covers politics, the criminal justice system and transportation for the Rhode Island Current.