I’m 30 feet above Interstate 97, peering through a chain-link fence at the concrete trail below. Traffic is light on this bright May morning, but I feel like a red-tailed hawk testing the exhaust-flavored wind flowing up from all that horsepower.

I try to picture how different it must have looked from this overpass on March 24, when 1,000 cars traveled it in a midnight stampede. Police call it a takeover rally, others say “banger” — but whatever the word, it’s a chaotic, traveling road party in search of the best spot for illicit driving spectacles.

The Anne Arundel County Police Department wanted none of it.

“CAR CLUB IS MOVING THROUGH COUNTY, CURRENTLY NB ON I97 PER [Officer Michael Moorehouse],” police dispatcher Kylie Potter typed into her computer. “HAVE UNITS STANDBY TO REDIRECT THEM IF THEY COME THIS WAY.”

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“[Moorehouse] HAS EYES ON VEHICLES COMING INTO THE TARGET AREA.”

The rally came out of Prince George’s County just after midnight. Police say the drivers were headed for the Giant Food parking lot in Gambrills, where they planned to set up an exhibition of wildness behind the wheel.

Blocked from that destination, the rally pounded north to I-97, the Beltway, and then turned south again toward Glen Burnie.

Officers cowboyed the exits, slipping through side streets and turn lanes. They blocked them this way and that, eventually shutting down part of Ritchie Highway itself. Potter, back in Millersville, was taking notes, calling out requests for help and giving updates on the fast-flowing crowd.

“UNITS PULLING ONTO RITCHIE NOW,” she wrote. “TRYING TO REDIRECT THEM ONTO ROUTE 10. NEED UNIT AT FURNACE BRANCH/ORDNANCE.”

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By the time it was over, an hour after the rally was spotted where Route 3 crosses the Patuxent River, the number of officers had swollen to more than 20 — including traffic cops, K-9 teams, a deputy sheriff and, overhead, one of the department’s three helicopters.

“That’s when the organizers decided that it was time to leave Anne Arundel County, and many of their frustrated followers headed home,” County Executive Steuart Pittman wrote in his newsletter a few days later. “Anne Arundel County Police did what other agencies have been unable to do.”

Maybe because no one was arrested, police decided against telling the public what happened. Instead, Pittman spotted it Monday morning in his daily police briefing. He’d heard a lot lately about how county police are overwhelmed as the department struggles to fill persistent vacancies.

“Wondering if we should go public with this success,” the executive emailed his chief administrative officer, Christine Anderson. “Might be nice for our residents to know that we actually have an effective police department rather than the one portrayed at budget town halls.”

When I first read Pittman’s March 28 account of this incident, I had questions about the constitutionality of it. You have a right to assemble lawfully, and although driving with 1,000 of your friends is surely a nuisance on the road, it isn’t illegal as long as nobody is breaking traffic laws.

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After reading the far more detailed police dispatch notes, released under a Maryland public information law request along with the county executive’s emails, it sounds like a threat to public safety.

“They’re performing stunts, spinning the car in circles, setting rings of fires by putting accelerant on the road, using fireworks as weapons,” said Capt. Dan Rodriguez, commander of the Special Operations Division.

It’s a growing problem for police or anyone caught on the road during one of these rallies. Organizers stir up excitement on social media channels, sometimes listing a coordinated destination, other times just providing a general area until the night of the event. Prize money for the best stunts can reach $30,000 to $50,000.

Police watch this chatter. Not just because of the risk of accident and injury, but because the events have become so big police have to stage in sufficient numbers to keep control. And right now, we’re heading into peak time for bangers.

“It remains a year-round problem, but in the summer it’s several times a month,” Rodriguez said.

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I like how Fairfax County, Virginia, Police Chief Kevin Davis, a former Anne Arundel and Baltimore City chief, described these rallies just days after the incident in Anne Arundel. One of his officers was struck at a rally in Springfield, and two Baltimore County men were later arrested.

“These groups of individuals, who wear masks and communicate with each other on various discreet sites, generate interest for car enthusiasts to gather at particular locations — typically late at night or early morning — for the purpose of utter chaos and disorder,” he said.

In February, state Sen. Pam Beidle narrated a grainy video of a takeover rally taken from a police helicopter.

The infrared image shows hundreds gathered in a shopping center parking lot in December 2022, their faces and cellphones bright with heat on a cold winter night. But it’s the spinning tires and vehicles that glow in the footage, punctuated by fireworks shells exploding overhead.

Beidle was trying to convince fellow lawmakers to pass her latest attempt at increasing penalties for drag racing and takeovers just days after incidents in both Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

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“That’s my district!” one lawmaker interrupted her.

Stunt drivers prepare to perform in the center of a ring of spectators at a Prince George’s County shopping center in December 2022. (Courtesy of Maryland General Assembly)

It’s in Beidle’s, too. Her northern Anne Arundel district is the site of frequent racing meets and takeovers, many of them staged in the vast sea of office and warehouse parking lots that empty nightly around BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport.

“I live on West Nursery Road and on a Saturday night, I can hear them a mile away,” she said.

Her previous attempts to increase penalties were blocked in part by Ocean City, where leaders wanted to protect laws they created to cope with the rallies at the beach. In September 2020, hundreds of police descended on the H20i rally, impounding more than 350 cars and handing out over 3,500 citations.

This year, Beidle overcame concerns that police would use tougher penalties to target anyone spinning tires in a parking lot, and Gov. Wes Moore signed it into law.

Starting June 1, anyone cited for driving stunts at a rally faces up to 60 days in jail, a $1,000 fine and an automatic driver’s license suspension.

During the March 24 takeover attempt in Anne Arundel, officers used their cars to channel rally drivers away from their destination, the Target store in Glen Burnie.

Officer John Thomas shut down Ritchie Highway, but that didn’t stop the cars moving between connected parking lots or drag racing on Crain Highway, a parallel road.

“STARTING TO GROUP UP AT THE CHUCKEE CHEESE,” Potter wrote in her dispatch notes. “20 VEHICLES AT THE SHELL. MORE AT CHUCKEE CHEESE.”

As one group of 30 vehicles was turned around, another popped up. Soon the numbers would reach 300, and final estimates put it at 1,000. All the while, police intelligence officers were monitoring organizers, passing information to the cops on the road.

“VEHICLES HEADING TO 1425 MAGELLAN ROAD,” Potter wrote, giving the location for the empty parking lot of an industrial building in Hanover.

Coordinating officers shifted, driving to the BWI area. New officers moved in for the first time, positioning themselves as another set of blockers.

Passersby started calling 911, telling dispatchers what was happening on the road. “CALLER THERE ARE VEH RACING BACK AND FORTH ON STREET,” dispatcher Yazmine Herndon wrote.

By 1 a.m., a much smaller group than had crossed into the county moved out, headed over the Baltimore City line and left Anne Arundel police behind.

“GROUP HEADED OUT OF THE COUNTY INTO THE CITY,” Potter wrote.

For the moment, at least, the threat of a banger was gone.

A police helicopter shot this video image during a December 2022 takeover rally in the parking lot of a Prince George's County shopping center.
A police helicopter shot this video image during a December 2022 takeover rally in the parking lot of a Prince George’s County shopping center. (Courtesy of the Maryland General Assembly)

Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and where we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom.

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