The NYPD on Thursday asked for the public's help to find bands of masked men on motor scooters ripping off victims on city streets.  Credit: NYPD

Marauding bands of armed, masked motor scooter robbers are the latest headache for the New York City Police Department, where officials are seeing a nearly 500%  increase since 2020 in incidents of gangs using the bikes to carry out assaults and rip-offs of unsuspecting victims on the streets and in outdoor restaurant areas, police officials told Newsday.

So far this year, there have been 23 cases of scooter gangs striking throughout the five boroughs, up from 14 in 2021 and only five in 2020, NYPD Chief of Detectives James Essig told Newsday last week. The majority of crimes in the emerging  crime pattern take place in the Bronx, Manhattan and northern Queens, he said.

“They hit very quickly. They hit three, four times in one location and they are gone,” said Essig, describing the method of operation for the gangs.

The speed with which the scooter criminals operate and the way they can quickly escape from a crime scene by going the wrong way down one-way streets and on sidewalks frustrates officers from pursuing them with vehicles out of concern for the safety of pedestrians and drivers, Essig said. Often the suspects can speed away over bridges into another borough.

“They have the speed of a car with the size of a bicycle,” said Chris Hermann, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan who studies crime trends, commenting on the mobility of the scooters.

The scooter thieves are another nagging problem police face at a time when robberies throughout the city are up more than 37% from 2021. 

While video surveillance can follow the scooters for miles, it is difficult to get identification because the robbers are usually wearing ski masks and using scooters that don’t have license tags, Essig said.

The gangs, which operate in groups of four or five scooters carrying a driver and someone to forcibly take jewelry and money, are reminiscent of the notorious  “scoppatori” thieves of Naples, Italy, who ride motor scooters as they steal handbags and wrist watches from unsuspecting tourists, officials said.

In New York City, the scooters are used not  only in armed robberies but also separately in a number of cases of shootings and other serious crimes, according to police. Just last week, a suspect in a sexual assault and robbery in upper Manhattan used a scooter to make a getaway, detectives told reporters.

Police said that a number of individual suspects have been arrested in the scooter cases and officials have confiscated their apparatuses. But Essig explained that the crews simply get new scooters and continue their crime spree.

The best tactic in dealing with the scooter thieves is to identify the bikes involved and confiscate them, Hermann said. Police can also increase foot patrols in hot spots where the scooter crimes are occurring, he said.

The NYPD is already trying to get as many of the illegal scooters, dirt bikes and ATVs off the street as they can in an effort cut down what the scooter gangs have to work with, said a department spokesman.

In June, both Commissioner Keechant Sewell and Mayor Eric Adams watched as hundreds of the illegal bikes, seized during enforcement actions, were crushed at a city facility.

Such destruction, said Hermann, hits the scooter gangs in the pocketbook, where it hurts them the most.

To reduce the volume of the illegal wheels on the streets, patrol units are monitoring 311 call complaints and other intelligence related to reports of scooters and ATV in neighborhoods, said Chief Jeff Maddrey, head of NYPD patrol services. Police estimate that since January, more than 2,000 illegal wheeled vehicles of all sorts, including cars, have been seized.

Essig said a key targets of the scooter gangs are Manhattan nightclubs and the food trucks near the clubs, where criminals target victims flaunting jewelry. The lesson from the scooter crimes is for people to be careful, cautioned Essig.

“The message: Be cognizant of your surroundings … and particularly with these scooters,” Essig said.

             

             

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