Kroeker favors tougher penalties for illegal street racing
Back when he was at Benson High School, Paul Vu loved to race cars. Every Friday and Saturday night, he'd take his Acura Integra Ñ loaded with $3,000 worth of custom accessories Ñ and go out to Sauvie Island, Vancouver, Wash., Troutdale or another industrial area and race against friends with similar cars.
'You have all your friends there cheering for you,' he said. 'It's a rush. It's the same thing like if people go bungee jumping or sky diving. It's a way to unleash on the weekends.'
But now at age 29, Vu says he's wiser. Married, with a baby on the way, he says life is too precious to participate in speed racing Ñ an illegal activity that has killed three, possibly five, people in the metro area in the past six weeks. (Vancouver police are investigating whether speed racing caused a crash that killed two women.)
Vu co-manages Ground Zero, a shop in Northeast Portland that sells auto accessories such as specialty body kits, exhaust pipes, lighting effects, big wheels and engines. But he wholeheartedly supports the recent police crackdown on the thrill sport.
'I'm all for it. I don't want to be the victim,' Vu says. 'I don't want to be the guy having his foot cut off by some kid going 80 miles per hour.'
The recent deaths have caused law enforcement in the metro area to crack down on the activity, including a push for more severe penalties.
Portland Police Chief Mark Kroeker says he's ordering officers to arrest each speed racer on a reckless driving charge Ñ a Class A misdemeanor that could send them to jail for up to a year. In the past, Portland police had issued a $295 citation for the offense since it's an infraction under Oregon law.
Kroeker says a harsher penalty is the only way to send a message. 'If you are going to break the law, you are going to go to jail,' he said. 'We will arrest you and charge you with the highest appropriate crime.'
In Gresham, where street racing has increased dramatically in recent years, convicted racers will be slapped with the $295 fine but probably won't be jailed.
Gresham Police Sgt. Grant McCormick said that's because to prove reckless driving, the prosecution has a higher burden of proof in court to get a conviction. The state statute says the driver is reckless when he or she endangers the safety of other people or property.
'The judges are hesitant to convict on that (charge),' he said. 'They usually go for the lower level.' But, he said, 'with the publicity that speed racing has received, they may start finding these people guilty.'
What to do
Multnomah County Sheriff's Sgt. David Rader has been tracking street racers for the past three years and calls it his personal mission to eradicate the illegal sport in the county. He agrees that making arrests isn't necessarily the answer.
Rader painted this picture of a first-time offender over 18 who is charged with reckless driving: They'd be booked into jail and probably released if there are no cells available, then be assigned a court date.
Depending on how a judge rules, their sentence may only be two years' probation and a fine.
In Vancouver, racers are typically charged with reckless driving since Washington state law classifies street racing as a Class A misdemeanor. But Deputy Police Chief Janet Thiessen agrees with Rader that the charge does not amount to much jail time.
To fix the differences and confusion between jurisdictions, Kroeker said he and adjoining police agencies will have 'some type of summit' to agree on a uniform approach to tackling the problem. He'd like to lobby the state Legislature to change the law to make speed racing a Class A misdemeanor.
He's also asking Portland's City Council to adopt an ordinance that would give police the authority to tow racers' and spectators' cars.
The Multnomah County sheriff's office is taking the same action. The county board of commissioners next Thursday will hear a proposed ordinance that would authorize towing throughout the county.
Rader says he advocates a stiffer penalty Ñ not only towing of their cars, but forfeiture of their cars and revoking juveniles' driver's licenses until they are 18.
'Ninety percent of these kids have provisional (probationary) licenses,' he said. 'Most of these cars are registered to their moms and dads, not to the kids driving it. I want that insurance to get as high as possible.'
The city of Gresham already has an ordinance that allows speed racers' cars to be towed; it was adopted two years ago when the city became inundated with the illegal sport.
Patrolling the hot spots
Speed racing happens in one of two circumstances: as a prearranged event with dozens of spectators, flaggers and a set course; or as an impromptu event in which two drivers stop at a stop sign or gas station, eye each others' cars or exchange words, and then take off down a straightaway.
In addition to the proposed legal changes, metro area police are being more cognizant of the activity Ñ stopping, rolling down their windows to listen, because the sound of street racers revving their engines and zipping down streets can be heard from miles away.
'You can imagine when one or two officers come into an area where there's speed racing, everyone scatters like fleas,' McCormick said.
McCormick said Gresham police probably will plan a multi-agency operation as they did last summer with the Portland Police Bureau and Multnomah County sheriff's office, specifically targeting speed racing hot spots.
Those are typically four- or five-lane roadways with long straightaways. Rader lists the following as trouble areas in the east end of Multnomah County:
lÊNortheast Airport Way, 138th to 166th
lÊNortheast Cameron Boulevard, 158th to 166th
lÊNortheast Mason Street, 148th to Airport Way
lÊNortheast Whitaker Way, 132nd to 138th
lÊNortheast San Rafael Street, 131st to 190th
lÊNortheast 185th Ave., Sandy Boulevard to Marine Drive
l Northeast Riverside Drive in its entirety
l Northeast end of the Troutdale Airport
l Northwest Birdsdale Avenue between Division and Powell
In Vancouver, hot spots include Fourth Plain Boulevard, going out to Vancouver Lake, and areas in west Vancouver toward the rural lowlands.