The crane’s 66-foot-long arm reached down to the flatbed truck, spread its giant claws and grabbed hold of four dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles.
The crane operator, perched high above, raised his prey into the air and swung it around, placing the vehicles gently on a conveyor belt. Within seconds, a machine separated metal from plastic and rubber, and 450-pound steel “teeth” transformed the bikes and ATVs into 14,180 pounds of shredded metal that will be sold all over the world.
A single dirt bike — whose riders travel in packs, flouting traffic laws and agitating motorists and pedestrians by popping wheelies on sidewalks — can be compacted into a fist-sized cube of metal.
D.C. police on Saturday destroyed 62 dirt bikes and ATVs, hauled to an area scrap yard in five trucks. All had either been abandoned, seized as part of a criminal investigation or taken because they were not registered and never claimed.
But instead of auctioning the bikes, and as they do with seized firearms, police decided to send a different message.
“We don’t want them to return to the street,” said Bill Sarvis, director of the D.C. police corporate support bureau, which is responsible for managing equipment, supplies and the agency’s fleet of vehicles.
Dirt-bike riders are fixtures in Baltimore and the District, drawing complaints from residents and frustrations from police who prohibit officers from chasing them, saying it is too dangerous. Instead, police use surveillance photographs to try to identify bikes and riders, as well as tips from the public to seize the vehicles. People who provide information to the police that leads to seizure of an illegal bike can receive an award of up to $250.
On June 25, more than 100 riders cruised through the H Street corridor of Northeast Washington and the streets of the National Harbor in Prince George’s County. Police sent up helicopters to follow the group, which wove through Sunday evening traffic and turned sidewalks into roadways for more than a half an hour.
D.C. police publicized 54 pictures of riders and bikes hoping to get tips. Police Chief Peter Newsham termed the event “terrorizing.”
“We hope those who illegally and recklessly operate these vehicles will see [the shredding] as a symbolic gesture that this type of behavior won’t be tolerated in the District of Columbia,” Newsham said in a statement. “The community is fed up with this behavior. As long as they continue endangering the lives of everyone on our streets, [the Metropolitan Police Department] will continue confiscating and destroying these vehicles.”
In 2016, D.C. police arrested 56 people on charges of illegally driving dirt bikes and ATVs, as well as seizing 41 vehicles. Police have made more than 20 arrests and confiscated 10 bikes so far this year.
Owners of the company that crushed the bikes Saturday allowed access to a reporter and photographer on the condition that the name and location not be published. A company official said they feared the bikes’ owners would come looking for vehicles or seek retribution.
The vast scrap yard is filled with piles of metal, including old cars, washing machines, grocery carts and oil drums. It takes 30 seconds to compress a car into a suitcase-sized cube. But most of the vehicles are shredded into small bits of metal to be turned into steel rods, beams and pipes.
Charles Thompson Jr., a supervisor at the D.C. police maintenance lot at Blue Plains in Southeast Washington, said he rides dirt bikes, but he keeps them off-road.
“They’re illegal on the street, so don’t ride them there,” he said after driving one of the flatbed trucks tied down with more than a dozen bikes. “These are some bikes that won’t be used by riders to kick the sides of police cars.”
When the fifth truck emptied, Thompson climbed onto the bed with a large push broom and swept some of the debris that had fallen from the clutches of the crane — a headlight, a handlebar and some broken glass. The job over, he jumped down and glanced up at the last of the bikes heading up the conveyor belt and toward the 450-pound teeth.
“These won’t terrorize anyone anymore,” Thompson said.