The St. Petersburg Police Department (SPPD) vowed to crack down on street racing after a 13-year-old boy died trying to cross the street during an event in January.
Assistant Chief Antonio Gilliam said an operation Saturday night – known as a “takeover” – was a chance “to make a statement” that the city has a zero-tolerance approach to street racing and would continue working to prevent another senseless death.
The SPPD, with help from the Pinellas Park Police Department and Florida Highway Patrol, made 69 arrests and impounded 23 vehicles during the operation. Investigative Information led officers to believe that Saturday night’s event was a prelude to a “takeover” of major intersections throughout Pinellas County.
Gilliam began this morning’s press conference by highlighting the “horrific” dangers of illegal street racing. A motorcyclist hit and killed Ethan Martin, 13, as he walked across 28th Street North near 110th Avenue Jan. 29.
“One would hope that such a tragic incident would serve to deter future illegal street racing,” Gilliam said. “Turns out that is not the case.”
Over 50 patrol vehicles from the three agencies responded to a parking lot at 1101 Roosevelt Blvd. at around 10:45 p.m. Saturday. While 57 of the arrests were for misdemeanors, felony charges included child endangerment and fleeing and eluding.
Gilliam said one couple was charged with the former after they brought two young children – aged 1 and 3 – to the event.
Gilliam added that he wasn’t there to judge anyone’s parenting skills. However, he said nothing good would result from bringing toddlers to a dangerous event that runs into the early morning hours.
Just spectating at street races is now illegal, and officers issued 74 citations. Of the 69 people arrested, 28 were juveniles.
SPPD Sgt. Mike Shade explained that officers initially charged 41 suspects and utilized juvenile jail records to make additional arrests. Gilliam noted that the SPPD could keep the 23 vehicles for 30 days, and owners face thousands in fines and impound costs.
Gilliam said the group responsible was part of a statewide network.
Once aware of the planned street takeover, he said officers utilized “every available resource at our disposal.”
“Law enforcement responded in our most aggressive manner to date,” Gilliam added. “The results of our operation on Saturday night were absolutely staggering. Many, if not most, were not even residents of Pinellas County.”
He stressed the importance of collaborating with various agencies, as the race’s start and finish lines often cross jurisdictions. Shade said street takeovers could occur on a roadway, highway or parking lot.
He explained that people encircle an area with their vehicles and bodies to restrict other motorists’ access. Officers explored the location when planning for the investigation, and extensive burnout marks indicated it was a popular spot for street racing.
Shade said Ethan Martin’s death, less than three months prior, “motivated us a lot.”
“It was a horrific scene, and when you see something like that happen as a law enforcement officer – or even as a normal person – you want to do what you can to prevent it from happening again,” he said. “And that’s what we tried to do this weekend.”
While Gilliam told reporters he didn’t want to divulge investigative details, officers hope to receive tips when groups plan street racing events. He said the speed with which the illegal races form through word of mouth would “amaze” people, underscoring the need for flexibility and inter-agency communication.
Highway Patrol Sgt. Stee Gaskins urged citizens to report any related information to StopRacing@flhsmv.gov or by dialing *FHP.
“We strongly suggest those of you that have engaged in this activity and might have plans to do so in the future – that you find a legal, more safe activity,” Gilliam said. “Because this activity will land you in jail or prison.”
St. Petersburg Police Department video shot above a parking lot at 1101 Roosevelt Blvd. Saturday night: