Inside L.A.'s deadly street takeover scene: 'A scene of lawlessness'

EAST COMPTON, CA - AUGUST 14: A car drifts around spectators gathered in the middle of the intersection during an early morning street takeover at Compton Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue in East Compton on Sunday, Aug. 14, 2022. Takeovers are a growing trend and residents say that law enforcement are not doing enough to stop them. There have been some residents who say that the events are dangerous and keep them up at night. Some spectators said they feel like they're not bothering anyone and they only happen at night when the streets are empty. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
A car drifts around spectators during an early morning street takeover at Compton Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue on Aug. 14. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Cindy and Dora didn't know where they were going on a recent Saturday night, but they knew they were headed to a "show."

Around 11 p.m., Cindy texted a friend in Compton but didn't immediately hear back. She and Dora grabbed some tacos from a stand and waited. About 40 minutes later, the women — who didn't wish to be identified by their last names — had their answer: East Compton Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue.

A little after midnight, nearly 200 people blocked the streets in what has become a weekly ritual in the city. Two cars whipped around the intersection,burning tires and worn-down brake pads sending shrouds of thick smoke into the air.

The illegal street takeovers, or sideshows, have been a part of urban Southern California culture for years. They often sprawl across multiple roads, with hordes of spectators blocking intersections to watch drivers hurtle around — sometimes scattering when vehicles careen into the crowd.

In the aftermath, glistening shards of broken glass sprinkle the roads and black tire marks tattoo the asphalt.

Those who attend say they aren't hurting anyone.

But there is a growing backlash in some neighborhoods, with residents demanding authorities do more to crack down on the illegal gatherings that can turn deadly in a flash.

In the last eight months, at least six people have died during or near street takeovers. In November, two men were shot and killed in a car parked near a takeover in Compton. In June, two women were killed in a crash near a Compton event. Over the Fourth of July weekend, a man in his 20s was fatally shot at a takeover in the Vermont Vista neighborhood. And Aug. 14, a teenage boy was shot to death during a takeover in Willowbrook.

A blurred car with smoke
Tire smoke and the sounds of revving engines fill the early morning air during a street takeover in East Compton. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Takeovers have grown in popularity since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when city streets were devoid of drivers during lockdowns. In the first six months of 2021, there were 500 reported sideshows in the city of Los Angeles, according to data from the Los Angeles Police Department. During the same span this year, the LAPD has reported 705 takeovers, just 300 fewer than the entire number reported last year. Data on takeovers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department were not available.

“It’s like a war zone,” former Compton Councilwoman Barbara Calhoun said. The perfectly painted white crosswalks on the major intersections near her home are marred by a tangle of black tracks.

Those who live in or near Compton say street racing and takeovers have defiled the city; the topic has become a regular point of discussion during council meetings, with residents like David Castillo pleading for action.

Castillo and his family were driving home from Walmart in March when they were struck by a lime-green Ford Mustang doing doughnuts near Wilmington Avenue and Stockwell Street.

A person leans out of a car during a street takeover
Compton Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue in East Compton are blocked off during an early morning street takeover. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

His truck was totaled, Castillo said, and his 13-year-old daughter slammed her head into a window, dislocating a disc in her spine.

The Mustang drove off.

Now whenever Castillo, 39, and his family drive by that intersection, his younger daughter asks: “Are we going to get hit?"

"That's not something a 5-year-old should be worried about," Castillo said.

Even with the dangers, fans defended the takeovers.

"It's something to look forward to," said 21-year-old Dora. "We're not bothering anyone."

From the corner of a blocked-off East Compton intersection, Steven threw his hands in the air as a beat-up Mustang hurtled toward the crowd and revved its engine. "I used to ride, but now I just like to watch," the 24-year-old said. "This is where it's at."

Like Cindy and Dora, Steven and his 31-year-old friend, Peter, did not wish to reveal their last names as they joined the midnight crowd.

"Sometimes people get stupid. They fight. Dumb sh—," Peter said. "[But] no one is hurting you, so don't hurt them."

To Calhoun, it feels as though police have stopped trying to rein in the problem. When she calls the Sheriff's Department to report a takeover near her home, she said, the response is typically a few patrol cars that flash their cruiser lights.

Representatives from the California Highway Patrol, the Sheriff's Department and the LAPD say they lack the staffing to safely stop sideshows while they’re in progress. Large crowds can easily become hostile, and coordinated responses to combat street takeovers have failed to curb the events, law enforcement officials say.

CHP officials say officers are discouraged from pursuing suspects in the interest of public safety.

Law enforcement vehicles with lights
Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies arrive at the scene of an early morning street takeover at Compton Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue in East Compton. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

"If you really have two patrol cars out there, you can't do anything with 200 other cars on the runway," Sheriff's Sgt. Michael Downing said. "We've had officers attacked. We've had patrol cars crashed into. We've had people get run over while cars are leaving.

"Our hands are tied by our limited resources, and we can't really deal with the crowds."

While law enforcement agencies coordinate with one another on street racing and takeover calls, the general consensus is the problem is getting worse.

There's also a growing criminal element at takeovers, police say, with officers finding handguns and drugs on people who are taken into custody.

"It's a scene of lawlessness," CHP Lt. Joe Zagorski said. "It's a borderline riot."

Early Aug. 15, a group of people at a street takeover police described as a "flash mob" stormed a 7-Eleven in Willowbrook. They grabbed food, drinks, cigarettes and lottery tickets, LAPD officials said.

The incident occurred about an hour after a separate takeover where a teenager was shot to death.

Cars drifts around spectators
Cars drift around spectators gathered in the middle of the intersection during an early morning street takeover in East Compton. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Compton Mayor Emma Sharif said street takeovers are a major concern for the city, and she's committed to working with law enforcement to solve the problem. For example, she said, the city has added cameras at intersections where takeovers occur frequently. And it recently installed small ceramic bumps, called Botts' dots, at four intersections to deter takeovers.

"We're just trying to make sure we take care of our citizens and make sure that we've covered all of our bases when it comes down to trying to address this issue," Sharif said.

The majority of takeovers are organized via social media posts, particularly Instagram. The invites often are simple comment threads under posts with vague details, but it's just enough information for those who participate to know where to meet.

The Los Angeles city attorney's office is weighing whether penalties and fines can be made against people who share invites online.

In an effort to fight fire with fire, the LAPD also has taken to social media, creating the @street_racer_task_force Instagram account, which is run by the department'sCentral and South traffic divisions.Since 2016, the page has amassed close to 30,000 followers with posts boasting about impounded vehicles and arrests.

The LAPD account shares videos of drivers doing stunts, such as "swinging" — where a driver swerves a car around in tight circles— or losing control of their vehicles and plowing into crowds lining the street. The outtakes are followed by pictures of those same cars being towed away on the back of a flatbed truck.

The comments section has taken on its own rowdiness. Commenters often chime in about the "buckets" impounded by police or the sport of eluding cruisers, as well as the notoriety that comes from being featured on the police feed.

On May 22, the department's Instagram account posted a photo of a Ford Mustang GT skidding through an intersection. The next picture showed a motorcycle officer searching the car before it was impounded.

A decal on the back of the car displayed the driver's social media handle. One commenter wrote: "[M]ade the task force page, y'all makin this man famous."

LAPD Traffic Cmdr. Al Pasos said despite the celebratory reaction of some comments, the department is using the posts to deter more street takeovers.

"It's being used as a preventative measure," Pasos said of the Instagram account. "If you're engaged in this, your car will be taken from you."

Participants and attendees can have their vehicles impounded up to 30 days, LAPD officials said last week. Since 2019, the CHP has led more than 231 operations to curb street racing and takeovers in Los Angeles County, resulting in over 800 vehicles being impounded or stored.

Along with those behind the wheel, who can be taken into custody for reckless driving, street takeover spectators also can be arrested on suspicion of unlawful assembly.

According to LAPD and CHP data, nearly 600 people have been arrested in connection with takeovers since January. Los Angeles police have reported 667 takeovers, issued over 2,000 citations and impounded 439 vehicles since the start of the year.

"We're not going to arrest our way out of this," LAPD Chief Michel Moore said at a recent Police Commission meeting. "Despite the hundreds of impounds and citations and arrests, we still see the proliferation of this."

Police cars at a street takeover
Police arrest three dozen people on May 5 during several illegal street takeovers in the San Fernando Valley. (KTLA)

Since 2018, the Los Angeles city attorney's office has received 464 cases for review —meaning law enforcement agencies have filed evidence to move ahead with criminal charges, and in some cases, permanently seized a person's vehicle. Of those, charges were filed in 335 cases and 96 were rejected. In one case, 30 spectators were presented for a single hearing.

"Every referral presents a unique set of facts, and therefore it is difficult to generalize," Rob Wilcox, director of community engagement and outreach for the city attorney's office, said in an email. "As our office gained experience with these cases, we refined our filing and disposition guidelines to adapt to the defenses we were presented with and the challenges of obtaining convictions on many of these charges."

The potential criminal implications of the illegal gatherings are highlighted further when the events turn deadly.

Juan Antonio Orozco, 22, and his friend Javier Carachure Menchaca, 19, were shot to death around 1 a.m. Nov. 14 while sitting in a car watching a street takeover in Compton.

Investigators say the men were not affiliated with any known gangs and think one of the 200 people present at the takeover must have seen something. Authorities this month announced a $20,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the shooting. Detectives said they have exhausted all leads in the case.

"The day they took my son's life, they took my life too," said Hermalinda Menchaca, her voice breaking during a news conference to announce the reward. "I died that day."

While residents across the county have pleaded with law enforcement agencies to curb the takeovers in their neighborhoods, the LAPD has thrown considerable muscle into policing the 6th Street Viaduct, a massive east-west artery connecting downtown L.A. to Whittier Boulevard, the heart of the historic Eastside.

In the month since the bridge opened, police have impounded six vehicles and issued 57 citations for lawlessness on the span, Moore said.

The span has been the cause of much consternation since it opened in early July, with Angelenos and authorities clashing over its use. Skaters, bikers and pedestrians have celebrated the new landmark. But it's the street takeovers and racing that neighbors worry about the most.

Car parts now litter the new bridge after crashes with other vehicles or concrete barriers that separate pedestrian walkways from traffic. Skid marks and black circles have already scarred the bridge's asphalt.

Officials are taking measures to curb the recklessness. Speed bumps are being added, temporary medians separating traffic lanes are in the works and climbing deterrents are planned along the bridge's arches. Meanwhile, crews have gotten back to work on the bridge in the early mornings, scrubbing away graffiti and picking up any leftover debris — an added cost to the bridge's $588-million price tag.

Roads are marked with black circular tire marks
The 6th Street Viaduct is marked up from a street takeover event in late July. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Carlos Montes grew up in East L.A. and remembers cruising down the streets with friends. So when the 6th Street Viaduct finally opened to the public, it was exciting, he said.

But the takeovers and police involvement have left Montes conflicted.

“We don’t like the fact that it’s being closed,” said Montes, referring to LAPD closures four times in five days in late July for what police deemed "illegal activity and public safety concerns” on the bridge. “But we also don’t like the fact that people are racing and doing all the stunts on there because that’s dangerous.”

Street racing also spills into other parts of the neighborhood, Montes said, like along St. Louis Street. Although the city has installed speed bumps in some areas, racing continues.

"We got used to the noise and the rubber and the speed, but we don't want it — and we don't like it on the bridge," Montes said. "This is our bridge. We waited years for it. And I hate to say it, but we're sick and tired of people racing and causing accidents."

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.