In wake of recent deaths, Santa Ana police look to combat illegal street racing


The Santa Ana Police Department is working on a far-reaching new initiative to address illegal street racing, an activity known to kill pedestrians and disrupt neighborhoods in its wake.

The multipronged approach — which includes increased enforcement, social media campaigns, multiagency partnerships, ticketing and traffic engineering — comes after increased reports of racing and related actions, as well as a recent pedestrian fatality and the death of a prominent newspaper editor whose truck was hit by a BMW in a street race with another car.

Commander Chuck Elms directs four just-arrived motor officers outside 60 Civic Center Plaza.
Photo by Spencer Grant/Behind the Badge

Police say impromptu street races can happen anywhere within a quarter-mile stretch. “Street takeovers” are also common.

“We’ve definitely seen an uptick since COVID-19,” said Commander Chuck Elms, who oversees the Santa Ana police traffic division. “People are staying home, so the streets aren’t as crowded with cars.”

With the support of the Santa Ana City Council, police are working with other agencies, including the Orange County District Attorney’s office.

They’re also in the preliminary stages of forming a countywide task force to combat street racing. That effort will examine what other municipalities have done to address the problem, Elms said.

A masked Santa Ana Traffic Division poses in front of 60 Civic Center Plaza.
Photo by Spencer Grant/Behind the Badge

“We’re seeing what they’ve done that has been successful,” he added. “We’re looking beyond just pulling someone over and giving them a fix-it ticket.”

One new approach will be providing officers with specialized training on street racing. They will know more about inspecting suspected racing vehicles, such as looking for modified or illegal parts, Elms said. Things like modified exhaust or air intake systems may trigger suspicion, Elms said. Once found, instead of issuing a fix-it ticket, the suspects will need to take their cars to a state referee who will then handle signing off the car to make sure it’s rid of illegal modifications.

“The referee will look beyond,” Elms said. “He will look through the entire car from bumper to bumper.”

This kind of action, which may even involve dismantling engines, is aimed at hitting suspects “in their pocketbooks with regards to our enforcement,” Elms said. 

The department recently issued six state referee referrals on Aug. 7 when street racers popped up in the city, said PIO Cpl. Anthony Bertagna. The Santa Ana Police Department, with assistance from Tustin and Irvine police departments, also issued 47 citations, made six arrests, and impounded four vehicles during that incident.

The Santa Ana Traffic Division is using educational techniques, a new state referee, and other tactics to fight street racing in the city.. Photo by Spencer Grant/Behind the Badge

On the traffic engineering front, the city is examining various deterrents, such as speed bumps, lane delineators and re-phasing traffic lights. This method is called “enforcement by environmental design,” Elms said.

He noted that street racing promotes problematic wear and tear, too. Peeling rubber and doing donuts gradually ruins pavement and asphalt, which then require taxpayer money to repair.

That’s why suspects may now be charged with vandalism, and prosecutors can go after them for damages in civil court, Elms said.

On education, police are creating social media campaigns about the dangerous effects of street racing in a manner similar to anti-drunk driving messaging. People may see nice cars being impounded, and the various penalties and fees associated with street racing, for example. Police also want to partner with particularly impacted communities.

“People know it’s dangerous,” Elms said, “but if we educate these young drivers on what the financial impact will be, and then the possibility of actually killing somebody, I think that will be the first phrase of our education component.”