Salt Lake City police target ‘criminal activity’ at 999 bike ride

The problems, police say, seem to stem from those riding electric motorcycles and gas-powered minibikes.

Just after 9 p.m. Thursday, a handful of cyclists lolled at the corner of 900 South and 900 East, waiting for the dozens of others who would soon arrive for the weekly critical mass ride that has become a Salt Lake City staple.

But this week, it wasn’t just bikers milling about. Multiple Salt Lake City police vehicles were there too, slipping into the Continental Cleaners parking lot, red and blue lights flashing, to keep cyclists back.

They were there last week too, said Lt. Steve Wooldridge, as part of an ongoing effort to tamp down illegal activity including littering, blocking traffic, noise complaints, assaults and other mischief before, during and after the meandering ride.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Police protect private property at Continental Cleaners following resident and business complaints as hundreds of cyclists gather to tour the streets of Salt Lake City during the weekly 999 ride, June 14, 2024.

Another issue, according to police: More and more participants aren’t riding bicycles. They’re on electric motorcycles or gas-powered minibikes and “doing donuts or smoke-outs” and wheelies, said police spokesperson Brent Weisberg.

“Really unsafe behavior that threatens even the other cyclists who are out on these events,” he said, “and so that’s our biggest concern, right? We don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

Wooldridge said officers weren’t around to fundamentally change the ride, where cyclists are so numerous they often take up entire city streets and run red lights to avoid splitting up the massive group. They just want to make sure it is safe, he said.

“The folks who want to lawfully have a safe ride, they can do that,” Wooldridge said, “and we can kind of clean out and kind of strip away the unlawful conduct that goes along with it.”

Last week, on June 6, officers arrested one person, cited nine others and gave out three warnings, Weisberg said.

The single arrest happened just before midnight near 500 West and 800 South, when officers saw a 36-year-old man on a dirt bike among the pack of cyclists, according to a probable cause statement. The officer turned on their sirens and flashing lights to pull the dirt biker over, yelling over a speaker to get the man’s attention and ask that he not ride away, but, the report states, “the male turned to look at me and then sped up to flee.”

Officers caught up with him about two blocks away, and realized the dirt bike wasn’t registered and the driver didn’t have insurance. They also found a marijuana joint in his handlebar pouch. The driver was booked into jail on suspicion of failure to stop for police, a third-degree felony, as well as misdemeanor counts for drug possession and not having insurance, plus two infractions for driving the dirt bike on public streets.

The majority of citations — seven — were given to people driving e-motorcycles without registration. The two others were issued to a cyclist who failed to stop at a stop sign and a driver who didn’t have a license, Weisberg said. The three warnings were all given to cyclists who didn’t have proper lights.

Weisberg emphasized that this operation isn’t like others that aim to curb violent crime, such as their recent show-of-force on the Jordan River. This, he said, is more of an educational campaign responding to resident and business concerns.

[Read more: SLC’s 999 bike ride: Has a good thing gone bad?]

“When we get complaints, we have to do something. We have to react, and that’s that point of this,” Weisberg said. “It’s not an enforcement crackdown. This is not a get tough approach.”

Between January 2021 and July, 27, 2023, Salt Lake City police fielded nearly 200 calls about the 999 ride, according to data released by the agency. The Salt Lake Tribune requested figures for more recent calls for service, but the department did not provide those numbers by Friday afternoon.

Officers issued 10 citations throughout Thursday evening’s ride, police said Friday afternoon, but specifics on those citations weren’t immediately shared.

Along for the ride

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds of cyclists tour the streets of Salt Lake City during the weekly 999 ride on June 14, 2024.

The increased enforcement news Thursday was met with split reactions online. Some participants argued that police had better things to do than patrol the ride — such as keeping motorists in-check, several suggested. But others argued the enforcement was needed.

In a private 999 ride Facebook group, one person suggested meeting at Liberty Park instead to avoid police at Continental Cleaners. Another joked, “Where are you guys meeting next week? (Not a cop)”

Another encouraged fellow riders to break fewer traffic laws by staying in the correct lane of travel, stop running red lights and quit blocking intersections.

“I get it there are thousands of people who participate on this ride,” he wrote. “But, there are better ways to go about how the ride should go down.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds of cyclists tour the streets of Salt Lake City during the weekly 999 ride on June 14, 2024.

The announcement Thursday afternoon about more police activity did not seem to affect attendance that night, as hundreds showed up (although many cyclists took note of officers at the starting point, and some grumbled about them being there).

Just after 9:30 p.m., a person shouted it was time to go. “Toward the whale!,” a man yelled, followed by some cheers and whoops from the crowd.

Cyclists set off at a leisurely pace toward the dappled maritime roundabout at 1100 East, before turning south, then north, then south again to cross 2100 South through the narrow shopping center sidewalks, just as sprinklers turned on.

Throughout the ride, curious residents poked their heads out of windows or stood on sidewalks along the route, waving or filming as cyclists passed by.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hundreds of cyclists tour the streets of Salt Lake City during the weekly 999 ride on June 14, 2024.

Party music — ‘90s pump-up jams and 2000s club staples — bumped at reasonable volumes from speakers that some riders carried. The music was loud enough to be heard, but not so loud that anyone struggled to carry on quiet conversation as they pedaled.

The only conflicts with motorists seemed to happen at the intersections of major thoroughfares, where motorists would sometimes lay on their horns or attempt to drive if cars had a green light. Most cars simply waited unto the group passed — which is what Weisberg recommended.

If a motorist revs their engine, or makes a quick turn toward cyclists, that’s an escalation that endangers cyclists, he said. If a group of cyclists suddenly surround a car and some bang on the vehicle’s windows, that’s an escalation too. Police don’t want either, Weisberg said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A fire-twirler entertains the crowd as hundreds of cyclists stop below the downtown freeway interchange in Salt Lake City after the weekly 999 ride on June 14, 2024.

“So we’re just asking the motorist, just let it pass,” he said. “If there’s criminal activity, if you feel unsafe, report it so we can document it, and then we can go back and work to figure out what happened.”

Thursday night’s ride ended beneath an overpass downtown, where cyclists stopped to drink beer or just hang out. Marijuana smoke emanated from the crowd, who watched an impromptu display of fire-twirling. And a game of chess.

Riders began to peel away as the night went on, pedaling into the night in clusters much smaller than the horde they arrived in.

And they’ll do it all again next Thursday.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A game of chess breaks out as hundreds of cyclists stop below the downtown freeway interchange in Salt Lake City after the weekly 999 ride on June 14, 2024.

Correction • June 17, 10:20 a.m.: This story has been updated to correct a location on the route of the 999 ride.