PEABODY — In recent weeks, police have been fielding reports of groups of middle schoolers riding around town without helmets while popping wheelies amid downtown traffic.
On Thursday morning, police took matters into their own hands when they impounded 36 bikes of helmetless middle school students in an effort to educate them and their parents about the importance of rider safety and the state's helmet law, which requires them to wear one.
Police set up at three places on the way to the Higgins Middle School on Perkins Street and took away bikes from kids they saw riding without helmets.
The bikes were labeled then stored downstairs at the Police Department on Allens Lane for parents or grandparents to come and pick up from 3 to 5 p.m. Thursday, and 4 to 7 p.m. on Friday.
Capt. Scott Wlasuk, commander of the Criminal Investigation Division, and Sgt. Christos Zamakis said the bikes would be returned and no kid would face any fines.
Kids got a free helmet and water bottle while parents were given a flyer about the state's helmet law that requires kids 16 and under to wear helmets while riding a bike in public.
State law governing the operation of bicycles exempts those 16 and under from being fined for riding without a helmet. Fines under state's bike law are not more than $20. State law also allows police departments to impound a bike ridden by a person under 18 who violates the state's bike law for up to 15 days.
"It's more of an educational endeavor and a bike safety endeavor," Wlasuk said, who said the effort was spearheaded by School Resource Officer Brian Colella to keep kids safe.
While a couple of parents and some middle school students said they understood the reasoning behind the police's enforcement action, they were not happy with the way the matter was handled.
"I guess there was cops like on every corner waiting for all the bikers driving down. The ones without helmets ... their bikes got taken away," said parent Zuleika Gomez of Peabody.
Her 14-year-old son saw his friend in front of him get his bike taken away by police, so he turned around and rode home. He lives just down the street from the school.
"It's dumb," said Jeyren Perez, 14, the friend who had his bike impounded, and who said he was not wearing a helmet when he was spotted by police. Perez got his bike back, along with a new helmet.
He wondered why they were enforcing the law, now.
He said he was riding slowly down the sidewalk "not doing anything bad." Both boys were given new helmets by police.
"I think it was good intentions," said Gomez, "but the cop was a bit rude," she said about how the officer treated them when they retrieved Perez's bike. She said she was not given advance notice of the helmet enforcement.
William Alvarado of Peabody said his 12-year-old son's bike was taken by police as he rode to school without a helmet.
"So, basically, this morning, I was coming down the hill. I crossed at the crosswalk. I was on the sidewalk the whole time. And he stopped me right here," said Anthony Alvarado indicating the sidewalk in front of the police station where he was stopped. "And he threw my bike right up against the sign, and then when he threw it against that, the top of my frame got scratched." Anthony also said his bike's fork was scratched, and the back wheel was warped.
William Alvarado said when he brought the damage to the attention of an officer, "he said that they didn't do it. It wasn't their problem and to get out of here."
He was unhappy with the way police handled things.
"There are certain ways of handling stuff, you know," he said. "It could have been prevented, you know, there could have been other ways to address the helmet law and whatever else they want to enforce, you know, instead of taking their bikes on a blind. No one knew about this," the father said.
After being texted by his son, he called the school and was told they were not aware of what was going on. He called police and spoke to three different officers who also were not aware of the enforcement. He tried to call and email Colella, but he did not get a response, so he called the mayor's office, and he was finally able to talk to Wlasuk, who told him how they could pick up the bike. He also met with police Chief Thomas Griffin, who gave him his card and said he would take care of the damage.
Anthony Alvarado, who is in the seventh grade, said there had been talk about having a meeting with students but they did not wind up having a meeting with sixth or seventh graders.
However, both father and son said they knew it was important to wear a helmet.
"It's hard to get him to wear it constantly, you know," said William Alvarado. "He could put it on when he leaves the house, who's to say he's going to keep it on."
"We are hoping this is going to raise awareness," said Sgt. Zamakis about the problem of kids not wearing bike helmets and riding out in traffic, a problem compounded by the fact that many drivers nowadays are distracted by their cell phones. Zamakis said they understood that the department would be in for its share of complaints.
"I'm not excited about taking a kid's bike away while they are going to school," said Zamakis, who has also seen kids riding without helmets in groups around the city. But he has also seen the outcome of kids involved in bike crashes.
"I have three little ones at home," Zamakis said. "How am I supposed to see this?"
He noted that kids who were spotted riding with helmets were given coupons for a treat at Treadwell's Ice Cream.
The Peabody police log outlines several instances in recent weeks of kids riding without helmets on busy streets after school.
For instance, on Friday, Sept. 27, at 3:48 p.m. police received a report that approximately 40 teenagers on bikes were riding in the middle of the street in the vicinity of New England Meat Market on Walnut Street. Police could not locate the group.
Later that day, at 6:12 p.m., Salem police asked Peabody to check the area of Main Street after receiving a report of 20 kids "riding bikes in the road on Boston (Street), cutting off cars, riding toward Main Street." Police were unable to locate this group.
The action by police brought Ernie Fratangelo, 70, of Lynn Street down to the station Thursday morning. His grandson, who he described as a good student, did not go to school because he was concerned "they were going to take his bike."
Wlasuk explained to Fratangelo: "We just wanted to get the message across," and that this was a public safety endeavor.
Fratangelo agreed with what police were doing.
"The helmet, they should definitely have it on. The wheelies, definitely not down Main Street," the grandfather said.
Zamakis said the kids he interacted with "are great kids," and they were polite and respectful when police impounded their bikes.
To enforce the helmet law, officers stood at three locations: in front of the station on Allens Lane, which is in close proximity to the school; on King Street at Tanners Court, and at Emerson Park. The officers said the bikes were not piled up, but were laid on the ground individually and stored separately downstairs in the station.
To further get the message across about bike safety, they plan to hold a bike rodeo in the spring.
"I think it's something we need to talk to them about," said Higgins Middle School Principal Todd Bucey, who said he spoke with some students whose bicycles were taken by police for riding without a helmet, and they told him police handled things well. Bucey had been aware of the helmet enforcement before it took place.
The problem is there is a fine line when it comes to enforcing the use of helmets, Bucey said. While it's good to enforce safe bike riding habits, the goal is not to discourage kids from riding to school.
"The biggest thing is, we have to listen, too," he said of getting feedback from students.
Turns out, riding bikes has become popular again, with every bike rack full each day at the middle school. When the new Higgins opened in 2016, there was debate about whether to install bike racks at the school.
"Now, we don't have enough," Bucey said.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.