A police officer in uniform exits his patrol vehicle to prepare to tow a car that was stopped for allegedly taking part in a sideshow. A group of young people talk with a plainclothes officer near the car.
Oakland police tow a vehicle allegedly involved in a sideshow. Credit: Courtesy of Oakland Police Department

Sideshow promoters in Oakland may soon risk serious new penalties for taking over city streets for the raucous stunt-driving parties.

Oakland’s Public Safety Committee approved a new ordinance Tuesday night that makes promoting or facilitating a sideshow a misdemeanor punishable with a fine of up to $1,000 and/or six months of jail time. The ordinance would likely apply to people who organize sideshows through social media, participate in reckless driving at these events, or block streets to stop traffic and police. The proposed law would also enable the city attorney to penalize organizers through civil injunctions.

The unanimous committee-level approval of the sideshow law followed a weekend in which the Oakland police impounded roughly 80 cars following a massive sideshow. Recently also, participants at a West Oakland sideshow appeared to have assaulted a man. Mayor Sheng Thao condemned the “brutal attack” and said her office is working with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office to implement sting operations against sideshows.

The public safety committee also signaled interest in replacing the Oakland Police Department’s helicopter fleet with a fixed-wing airplane. The committee received an informational report about the cost-benefits of making such a move, which would potentially put an end to Oakland’s decades-long reliance on the Argus helicopter for pursuits, arrests, and evacuations.   

Yet another attempt to crack down on sideshows

The sideshow ordinance, which has been placed on the consent calendar of the next city council meeting—meaning it will be voted on along with multiple other items, without discussion, unless a councilmember requests it be considered at a full public hearing—does not include penalties for spectators of sideshows, as was originally envisioned in the legislation Councilmember Noel Gallo introduced last fall. Councilmember Dan Kalb raised concerns about targeting people who are simply in proximity to a sideshow. His chief of staff, Seth Steward, told the committee on Tuesday his boss supports the narrower law.  

Gallo told the committee he’s tried to stop sideshows in East Oakland by discussing the possibility of organized shows with promoters, but that effort went nowhere. Gallo said he and other residents set up guerrilla planter boxes in intersections to prevent cars from spinning donuts. OFD shut down this effort because it impeded their engines. 

In fact, the City Council and OPD have been trying to crack down on sideshows for decades. In the early 2000s, the council urged the state legislature to pass new laws that would have expanded OPD’s ability to impound cars involved in sideshows. In 2005, the council approved legislation declaring sideshows a public nuisance and prohibiting spectators from attending them. The council repealed the 2005 law two years later after a lawsuit challenged its constitutionality. Since then, OPD has joined with other law enforcement agencies to try to prevent sideshows, arrest participants, and impound their cars, but the events continue.

“The bottom line for those of us that live in challenged areas is we’re investing millions and millions of dollars to make sure the crosswalk that my child or family cross is visible, and is clear and safe,” Gallo said at yesterday’s committee meeting. “Yet here come these other groups at nighttime making their circles, burning out their tires, creating safety issues not only for themselves but for those people that live there in the neighborhood.”

Gallo’s ordinance copies a law adopted in San Jose in 2021. Shortly after passing the law, San Jose’s City Attorney used the law to file suit against two men who had allegedly been repeatedly cited for organizing sideshows.

Councilmember Carroll Fife quizzed OPD staff about whether they thought the ordinance would be effective. After being assured that the department sees the ordinance as a positive development, Fife said she’s made some progress working on a legal alternative to sideshows. She said for people who continue to do illegal sideshows, the ordinance is “the stick.”

Councilmember Treva Reid requested additional measures to curb sideshows in District 7, which she said terrorize her constituents.

“Sideshows are not fun, sideshows right now are illegal, they’re destructive, they’re reckless, they’re violent,” Reid said, adding that she believes most of the organizers and facilitators who enable sideshows aren’t from Oakland. According to OPD arrest and citation data collected between January 2021 and September 2022, roughly two-thirds of participants at sideshows were from outside Oakland.  

A handful of public commenters grumbled that the ordinance wasn’t sufficiently punitive to deter sideshows. Carolyn Burgess, a board member of the North Hills Community Association, said she mentored a young girl who was killed driving home from a sideshow.

“The spectators are the enablers,” Burgess said. “I think they should be held accountable as well. I also think that the parents should be held responsible.”

City officials may look for ways to use the ordinance to maximize punishments against repeat offenders. In a back-and-forth with a representative from the City Administrator’s office, Councilmember Janani Ramachandran clarified that Oakland officials can still seek a civil injunction in cases where the district attorney chooses not to file charges under the ordinance.

“And if that’s violated, that person can still be arrested if the court finds them in contempt,” Ramachandran noted.

Committee Chair Rebecca Kaplan noted that the city is working on multiple measures to curb sideshows. The mayor’s new budget includes funds for traffic calming infrastructure—a method the council strongly supports. OakDOT estimated that sideshow activity can inflict roughly $16,000 worth of damage to an intersection. Between 2021-2023, the city budgeted about $650,000 to prevent sideshows in the most impacted locations, plus $150,000 for two especially hard-hit intersections at MacArthur and Coolidge and MacArthur and Fruitvale. OPD budgets approximately $1.8 million for its teams that break up sideshows, but expenditures can go higher.

OPD wants an airplane to replace its helicopters

Councilmembers also mulled the possibility of mothballing or partially replacing OPD’s small helicopter fleet. According to a staff report, the city recently approved an $850,000 one-year contract to maintain its two patrol helicopters, each of which is about 30 years old. OPD acquired its first helicopter in 1970. 

OPD staff said the one-time cost of buying and modifying a fixed-wing airplane would be $4.4 million. However, they noted that operating an airplane is significantly cheaper than a helicopter, clocking in at $150 per flight hour compared to $600 per hour for copters. An airplane would also be able to operate 2,000 hours per year as opposed to 1,400 for a helicopter.

Kaplan clarified that the committee was only receiving a report on this idea, not authorizing a procurement. One of OPD’s first steps is getting approval for the surveillance technology it wants to install in a plane from the Privacy Advisory Commission, which will discuss the matter in June.

Kaplan was enthusiastic about the prospect of at least hybridizing OPD’s air fleet with a plane.

“I want to be clear, the community has been complaining about helicopters for a long time, and I think it’s important we acknowledge that and take that seriously,” Kaplan said, adding that helicopters are heavy polluters and disproportionately impact marginalized communities.

There are drawbacks to using planes that would make it difficult for Oakland to completely abandon helicopters. Fixed-wing aircraft can’t use searchlights at night or operate during heavy cloud cover. Officer Jon Vanerwegen of the OPD air unit said the department could request helicopter assistance from California Highway Patrol or the Alameda County Sheriff, but those departments can’t guarantee aid for every incident.

Vanerwegan illuminated the degree of aerial cooperation between law enforcement agencies when he mentioned that OPD performed 624 helicopter “assists” for neighboring agencies in 2022 at no cost. Reid asked for follow-up reports on how many times outside agencies assisted OPD with helicopters.

Deputy City Administrator Joe DeVries said it would make sense to retain at least one helicopter, even with drastically reduced hours, in case of bad cloud cover. But he said the benefits of using helicopters less often were exciting. DeVries noted that many residents see OPD helicopters as the semi-official “city bird” of Oakland.

“It would be nice to shake that reputation,” he said.

Eli Wolfe reports on City Hall for The Oaklandside. He was previously a senior reporter for San José Spotlight, where he had a beat covering Santa Clara County’s government and transportation. He also worked as an investigative reporter for the Pasadena-based newsroom FairWarning, where he covered labor, consumer protection and transportation issues. He started his journalism career as a freelancer based out of Berkeley. Eli’s stories have appeared in The Atlantic, NBCNews.com, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and elsewhere. Eli graduated from UC Santa Cruz and grew up in San Francisco.