Nov. 19—Tires squealing, onlookers cheering and troublemakers filming the car stunts that fill Bakersfield’s roads with smoke all unfold when so-called sideshows or takeovers block major intersections.
But a dearth of resources by local law enforcement doesn’t lead to wide-scale arrests and the prosecution or perpetrators, according to The Californian’s data analysis of arrests. Questions about dismantling sideshows have risen across the state and locally, with residents asking what can be done, especially after a recent incident led to 40 arrests.
“It’s not only such a serious hazard in the community … (but it puts) peoples’ lives at risk, said Bakersfield Ward 7 Councilman Chris Parlier.
The Bakersfield Police Department arrested 61 adults at three sideshow incidents that attracted hundreds in the past year. These three incidents were noted by the department in news releases. Of those arrests, 27 these cases were sent back to the department by the Kern County District Attorney’s Office for further investigation, according to The Californian’s analysis.
Three cases were under review by the DA as of Thursday, and 13 minors were also arrested in relation to the three incidents. Any potential charges and their status related to children are withheld from the public.
Court records show those arrested and charged with misdemeanors bargained a plea deal and were sentenced to time served or probation. The cases of those charged with felonies remain pending.
Law enforcement attempts to apprehend the most “reckless” in the swarm, according to spokesmen for both the Bakersfield Police Department and California Highway Patrol. Assistant District Attorney Joseph Kinzel, spokesman for the office, added prosecution largely focuses on those performing stunts or blocking roadways.
It’s difficult to build a case to charge spectators who just watch the stunts, but prosecutors can build cases by examining social media pages and people’s actions during takeovers, Kinzel added.
DAs “filter out who is actually doing what and determine charges based upon that,” he added.
BPD doesn’t have a unit dedicated to sideshow enforcement, added BPD Detective Marc Lugo, a spokesman for the department. But BPD partners with other local agencies because apprehending violators crosses jurisdictions — he recalled one car chase the led to Arvin.
Any information gleaned about coordinated groups comes from citizen tips or when vehicles begin to congregate, he added.
Lugo couldn’t speak about police’s approach to dispersing spectators and those who perform stunts because each situation is different. Police tactics may range from deterring people from joining a sideshow, to dispersing those gathered in roadways, he said.
Lugo said police focus on those performing stunts, such as donuts and flaunting illegal activity, in roadways. Others who are “encouraging” these events could also be arrested in connection for aiding and abetting, he added.
“We would like to make as many arrests as we can to stop them,” Lugo said. “But in reality, we’re able to just do the best that we can for these types of events.”
Asked about police’s limited resources when faced with hordes of people, Lugo said BPD balances officer safety with trying to arrest as many people as possible.
Items are often thrown at officers, or their way is blocked, Lugo said. According to a probable cause statement, fireworks were launched at officers’ cars.
“Unfortunately, there will always be more of them than there are of us,” Lugo added.
CHP Officer Tomas Martinez, a spokesman with the office, added their visual presence and lights and sirens also act as a dispersal mechanism. But when the scene turns chaotic — people fleeing the scene or blocking officers — officers will try to gather license plate numbers to conduct follow-up investigations, Martinez said.
A leader of the group could be someone weaving throughout the crowd and doing donuts, damaging property or hitting someone, Martinez said.
Other California cities have enacted ordinances to reduce the “thrill side” of sideshows, according to Frank V. Zerunyan, a professor of the practice of governance at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy.
Cities such as Arteisa, Fremont, San Jose and Santa Ana all looked into creating an ordinance, and some adopted them. These ordinances generally imposed a penalty for takeover spectators, according to the law’s text.
A roadblock arose when cities debated the ordinances regarding spectators. Council members sought to prevent constitutional rights violations when creating the ordinance, Zerunyan said.
But, Zerunyan said, lives are at risk. The constitutional questions raised by the ordinance are concerning to him, he said, but rarely do people drive in the middle of the night to observe and cheer on those performing stunts.
Legislators must walk a fine line between providing safety but also protecting people’s rights, he added. He pointed to language in an ordinance approved by Artesia, which outlines what police may not do — they cannot enforce the municipal law when it would interfere with peaceful labor picketing or if their actions would violate the Unruh Civil Rights Act, according to the ordinance.
The city of Fremont adopted an ordinance, which became effective in October, that makes it illegal for spectators within 200 feet of the “reckless driving exhibition” to be “knowingly present,” according to the ordinance. Zerunyan added it was concerning to him that the text didn’t carve out restrictions that were noted in Artesia’s law.
“We are elected to protect life, to protect safety of our residents and we are seeing more and more young men die as a result of a senseless act,” Zerunyan added. “It would be irresponsible of us to not act in this domain, to try to make this less desirable for people who do this for the thrill.”
The city of Bakersfield doesn’t have any plans to create an ordinance stemming sideshows, Councilman Parlier said. Councilmembers Eric Arias and Andrae Gonzales, who sit on the Safe Neighborhoods & Public Safety committee with Parlier, did not return a request for comment.
But Parlier said any potential ordinance should bring stiffer penalties rather than misdemeanors. Police often witness crimes rising to a felony within the melee, he said.
The effects of sideshows weren’t lost on Donald Reimer Jr. and his family when they drove through Bakersfield earlier this year. Happenstance trapped them in a chaotic group at the intersection of Rosedale Highway and Mohawk Street. People surrounded Reimer’s car when they tried to leave and scratched up the exterior while breaking their taillights.
Their then-9-month-old daughter was crying so hard she couldn’t breathe, according to previous reporting.
That incident was the “final straw,” Reimer said in a recent phone interview.
Proliferating sideshows and California’s approach to them led Reimer and his family to move to Arkansas, where they now live.
“We got attacked while we were there,” Reimer said. “We didn’t want to deal with that anymore.”
You can reach Ishani Desai at 661-395-7417. You can also follow her at @_ishanidesai on Twitter.