Denver Police Trying to Put the Brakes on Illegal Street Racing

The DPD says a fatal high-speed crash downtown on April 3 was caused by drag racing.
The DPD says a fatal high-speed crash downtown on April 3 was caused by drag racing. Denver Police Department
Empty streets during the pandemic have resulted in an epidemic of illegal street racing, and the Denver Police Department is trying to put the brakes on an activity that can become deadly serious.

"I think that we are getting this under control," Denver Police Division Chief Ron Thomas told a Denver City Council committee during an April 21 presentation on street racing.

The metro area has seen a number of high-profile speed-racing incidents in recent months. On the night of March 7, for example, the Aurora Police Department tweeted about gridlock on I-225 southbound from Colfax Avenue because of street racing. "There are reportedly 600 vehicles involved intentionally blocking the shoulders preventing police from accessing the area. There are reports of fireworks and smoke and weapons being waved. Stay out of area while officers try to address the situation," the department warned.

Asked about this incident during the meeting, Denver police officials explained that only a few dozen of those cars were involved in racing, and the rest were simply stuck behind them.

On April 3, downtown Denver was the site of a more serious drag-racing incident: a high-speed crash at 18th and Lawrence streets that resulted in the death of Jessica Marie Allen, a forty-year-old wife and mother of two. A GoFundMe for Allen's memorial has been established; she was making a food delivery when her car was hit by an SUV. The Denver Police Department has arrested the man who was allegedly driving that car, charging him with vehicular homicide, vehicular assault and DUI.

Paul Kashmann, a member of Denver City Council who represents parts of south Denver, told the police officials presenting plans to the committee that some of his constituents "have the feeling that things are out of control."

Thomas responded that he believes the pandemic has caused this boom in street racing. "There were fewer things for individuals to do because some of the activities were shut down," he said. "I think some of the lane closures that we engaged in along Federal and other locations kind of directed people to open stretches of roads, like the highways and some of these industrial business districts."

But Jamie Torres, a councilmember representing parts of west Denver, expressed concerns about the policy of placing officers along Federal Boulevard.

"I’m grateful for you all coming to the table, but just trying to think if there are other ways that this can be addressed along Federal that keep folks safe but also still allow some freedom and permission for folks to be where they want to be on Sunday nights for cruising," Torres said, referring to those who like to parade their usually souped up cars slowly down a specific street.

Lieutenant Eranda Piyasena joined Thomas and Chief Paul Pazen in explaining how the DPD will introduce roadblocks to stop speed racing in Denver, with a public messaging campaign and "focused deterrence" that involves "placing officers in the area of known street racing locations" and sending out others for "rapid response."

The DPD also plans to communicate with impacted or potentially impacted businesses, work with other city agencies to implement road closures, partner with the Denver City Attorney's Office to enforce existing public-nuisance abatement laws, and use a police helicopter to track street racers. The officers said they also want to continue working with local law enforcement partners and the Colorado State Patrol to crack down on racers.

Laws related to street racing differ from municipality to municipality, which can create challenges. Denver's are among the toughest. "The laws in Denver are very appropriate for what we have, particularly around the public nuisance, the speed contest display," said Pazen. Drag racing in this city can result in the loss of a driver's license, a $999 fine, and even a vehicle impoundment.

As an alternative way to satiate the need for speed, the Colorado State Patrol has renewed its partnership with Bandimere Speedway that allows amateurs to race around the Jefferson County track on Wednesdays. This year's program began on April 21 and lasts through the summer.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.