Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Responses to the Problem of Cruising

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular cruising problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community’s problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: give careful consideration to who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it.

General Considerations for an Effective Strategy

  1. Enlisting community support. The prospects for effectively addressing cruising improve when it is perceived as a community problem and not just a police problem.10 Combined efforts by the local government, community leaders, and media to inform citizens about the problem and involve them in initiatives to address it will enhance the likelihood of success. Without sufficient community support to control cruising, police risk criticism for cracking down on what some see as an innocent pastime.Therefore, we suggest that an educational campaign be launched to inform the public about cruising ordinances or crackdowns, and to solicit local compliance with, and support for, police actions. Other efforts might include distributing pamphlets to cruisers and area car clubs to solicit their help.

For many years, cruising problems plagued Santa Ana, Calif., on weekend nights. Many youths—a lot of them gang members—filled a popular cruise street and committed numerous violent, gang-related, and public-disorder crimes. High- visibility patrols and heavy enforcement accomplished little; in fact, the problem only grew worse. Lacking the resources to address the problem alone, the Santa Ana Police Department (SAPD) formed a multiagency task force comprising officers from almost every municipal Orange County police agency and the California Highway Patrol. In total, about 125 officers were deployed on weekends for three weeks. The SAPD examined the cruising participants’ motivation. After determining that participants both expected and desired the disorder and violence, the SAPD and cooperating agencies decided to change the “rock concert” environment to one of strictly controlled vehicle movement and personal contact between officers and cruisers. The registered owner of each cruising vehicle subsequently received a registered letter explaining the city’s policy. This operation put a stop to cruising within the first few nights, and two years later the city was still free of cruising, and officers formally assigned to the problem were being redeployed citywide. Source: Walters (n.d.).
Longmont, Colo., had a long history of cruising problems that included fighting, noise, traffic congestion, liquor violations, shoplifting, littering, drug dealing, vandalism, and weapons offenses. Cruising participants filled several business parking lots. The Longmont Police Department (LPD) examined the cruising problem’s 20-year history and conducted a national survey of other police agencies to learn how they addressed cruising. The LPD’s review of its own practices revealed that channeling traffic and issuing citations had no effect, and that officers had no commitment to solving the problem. City forums were held to consider possible solutions. Through the forums, many business owners agreed to post no trespassing signs in their lots, install or repair lights, gate entrances and exits, and install barriers as necessary. Beat officers also got involved in developing solutions. The LPD [ circulated a newsletter to more than 300 businesses, keeping them updated on issues and strategies, and gave cruisers a flier outlining the department’s partnership with citizens, and its new zero-tolerance approach. Press releases and news stories also informed residents about the problems and about forthcoming police actions. Both on- and off-duty officers then took to the streets, on foot and bike, for enforcement operations. They issued over 800 summonses and 200 warnings, and made 171 arrests. The results were zero noise complaints from residents, and significant reductions in property crimes (40 percent), crowd dispersals from parking lots (66 percent), and disorderly conduct offenses (11 percent). Disturbances and weapons assaults also dropped significantly. Police had contingency plans for displacement, and where it occurred, beat teams resolved the problem. Source: Earhart (2000).[Full text]
  1. Establishing alternative activities for youth. Although cruising is a major means of socializing for young people, events such as car shows or dances might also appeal to them. While some cruisers cruise to rebel and might not want to participate in officially sanctioned events, others less committed to cruising might participate. You should ask cruisers what alternative activities would appeal to them.

  2. Promoting other uses of the cruising area. Increasing foot traffic in the cruising area, encouraging businesses to stay open later, allowing restaurants to set up tables between sidewalks and curbs, and bringing special events to the area (perhaps closing part of the street for them) can discourage cruisers, as they have to compete for space and attention. However, legal challenges may arise if use of public space is seriously restricted or people are charged admission to enter a public area.11

Specific Responses to Cruising

  1. Enacting and enforcing cruising ordinances.

    Typical cruising ordinances regulate how many times the same vehicle can pass a fixed point within a certain time.

    †A 1988 Boise (Idaho) Police Department survey of 229 police agencies serving populations of more than 50,000 revealed that most jurisdictions had some form of local ordinance regulating cruising (Carvino 1990). See also Gofman (2002) [Full text ].

    Warning signs to this effect are recommended, and may be legally required.

    †For example, a California statute authorizing cities and police to combat cruising and divert traffic provides that police cannot ticket a cruiser unless they have previously given the cruiser a written warning after he or she has passed a traffic control point, and that cities must post adequate notices at the beginning and end of the street section subject to cruising controls (Gofman 2002) [Full text ].

    Police can give offenders a verbal or written warning (on the spot or in a letter), cite and release them, or arrest them. Enforcing such ordinances, however, usually requires many officers and, accordingly, is costly.12

    Cruising ordinances have led to legal challenges. Most courts have held that, while the right to travel “has long been recognized by the courts as inherent in our…personal liberty,”13 government has a legitimate interest in regulating vehicle traffic. The courts have concluded that cruising ordinances are valid insofar as they prohibit only repetitive driving in specific locations, and do not impede regular travel.14 Where such ordinances have been successfully challenged, it has usually been on the grounds that they were impermissibly vague.15 In other challenges to cruising ordinances, such as when police ticketed a delivery truck driver for cruising, the court has held that the ordinance regulated all motorists uniformly and thus was not discriminatory.16

    At least one federal court has addressed anti-cruising laws. In Lutz v. City of York,

    †Lutz v. City of York, 692 F. Supp. 457, at 457-58 (M.D. Pa. 1988), aff'd, 899 F.2d 255 (3d Cir. 1990).

    the Third Circuit Court of Appeals found that cruising does fall under the fundamental right of intrastate travel, although ordinances may place a reasonable time, place, and manner restriction on such movement. The court found the York, Penn., ordinance problematic because it applied on weekday nights, when cruising was generally not a problem, and other traffic laws already addressed most of the disruptions caused by cruising.This case is the majority rule on anti-cruising laws. Since Lutz, local governments enacting anti-cruising ordinances have generally added procedural safeguards, such as requiring that adequate notice be given.

    Local ordinances vary as to whom, specifically, police can charge with a violation. Most ordinances apply to the driver only, but others apply to passengers as well, or to the car’s owner if he or she is in the car.

    There is a risk that police might enforce cruising laws against drivers not actually cruising. To minimize this risk, some jurisdictions require not only proof of an intent to drive repetitively and unnecessarily, but also that the accused be exonerated if he or she has a legitimate reason for repetitive driving.17

    Keep in mind also that some local businesses that cater to cruisers might suffer financially from cruising crackdowns.

  2. Enforcing trespassing and loitering laws. Police often enforce cruising ordinances in conjunction with trespassing and loitering laws to keep cruisers from hanging out on private property near the cruising location. Enforcing trespassing and loitering laws on private property will likely require that property owners grant police specific authority to do so in their behalf. Judicial cooperation may be necessary to ensure that such enforcement is perceived as productive.18
  3. Restricting parking. Prohibiting parking—both on public streets and in nearby private parking lots—serves to limit the number of spectators in the cruising area. Without a sufficient crowd, cruisers are discouraged from cruising.
  4. Enforcing laws that restrict juveniles’ driving privileges. At least 36 states have enacted tighter restrictions on teenage drivers, and these restrictions can help police control cruising, especially at night. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration refers to this trend as “graduated driver licensing.”19 Common restrictions include prohibiting 15- and 16-year-olds from driving without an adult passenger at night, requiring that seat belts be worn, and limiting the number of passengers a young driver can have. They further threaten license revocation if underage drivers are convicted of any offense involving drinking.20
  5. Regulating and redirecting traffic. In conjunction with strict enforcement of other ordinances, nearly every city that has aggressively addressed cruising problems has used barricades and traffic cones to shut off selected streets, keep traffic flowing in one direction, prohibit U-turns at favorite U-turn points, or redirect traffic (to shut down main cruising streets, channel traffic to one lane to identify drivers, inhibit conversation and antagonism between vehicle occupants, etc.). Many police agencies have found that using signs is not a long-term solution, however; when they remove the barricades and cones, the cruisers return. Furthermore, residents must be able to get through barricades to leave or get to their homes.

    To deal with the worst of gang-related cruising, cities have erected barriers to block off one end of affected streets; the courts have upheld such practices.21 Some jurisdictions have created an ordinance allowing the on-duty command officer to erect barricades and close main cruising routes when cruising becomes a problem.22
  6. Increasing street lighting. Increased lighting in large parking lots or other cruising gathering points can help to make those areas safer.23 (Note, however, that it can be very expensive for property owners to install and maintain additional lighting, and too much light can cause glare and disturb nearby residents.)

    The Lighting Research Center, a subsidiary of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is an excellent resource for lighting information, addressing transportation, health and safety, productivity, and performance issues. See www.lrc.rpi.edu/resources/news/ennews/ apr04/generalnews.html

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

  1. Sanctioned or controlled cruising has been shown to have only limited effectiveness as a response to cruising problems.

    Sanctioned or controlled cruising has been shown to have only limited effectiveness as a response to cruising problems. Credit: Nordic Pontiac Association

    Sanctioning cruising in alternative locations. Some police agencies, such as those in Arlington, Texas, and Huntington, W.Va., have tried to relocate and control cruising rather than stop it. In this response, police divert cruising to locations where it is less likely to disrupt other community activities. They might select well-lit locations with a “downtown” atmosphere, reduced and slower traffic, more side streets for turning, more on-street parking, and added lanes.24 Or they might reserve a large parking lot for cruisers, setting up traffic cones to create cruising routes. (A task force studying Boise cruising problems found this alternative highly controversial, however, and did not recommend its use, due to city liability issues and business-owner opposition .) 25
    To the Arlington Police Department (APD), cruising had become a chronic headache that defied solution, freezing traffic for hours, adversely affecting businesses, and disturbing residents. The APD’s first response was to assign its 15-officer motorcycle unit to the area; they issued up to 600 tickets a night for minor violations. After two years, it became evident that enforcement was producing no long-term results. Next, they set up barricades to divert and break up the traffic flow. But crowd control remained a core problem, with fights, alcohol and drug abuse, vandalism, littering, and thefts in abundance. Finally, the city leased a large parking lot and opened it to cruisers on weekend nights, staffing it with police, equipping it with portable restrooms, and cleaning up each morning. The presence of foot and mounted patrols was a key component of the plan, providing a secure yet unstructured environment. Everyone involved deemed the effort a success. Street traffic flowed smoothly, customers returned to once off-limit businesses, and neighborhoods were free from problems. Source: Bell (1989).
  2. Enforcing juvenile curfews. Because cruising typically occurs at night, enforcing juvenile curfews can reduce the number of young people on the street, thereby reducing their risk of offending and being victimized, and reducing the number of cruising spectators.26 Enacting and enforcing such curfews can be politically controversial, however. Furthermore, if the majority of the cruising crowd is too old to be affected by curfews, their usefulness will be limited.
    In Anoka, Minn., up to 500 teenagers were milling about among cruisers on weekend nights, resulting in fights, traffic violations, underage drinking, vandalism, sexual assaults, and drug dealing. The city appointed a task force to study the problem and recommend solutions. First, the city enacted a no-cruising ordinance, which included the designation of a No Cruising Zone. To be considered a violator, a driver had to have passed a traffic control point at least three times between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., and before police could issue a citation, they had to have previously issued a warning ticket good for six months. The warning clause proved to make the ordinance ineffective, and meanwhile, gang activity, drug dealing, serious assaults, and vandalism were increasing. The city removed the warning clause and more clearly defined the loitering law. More officers were assigned downtown on bike and foot patrols, and off-duty state troopers and sheriff’s deputies were also hired. While they were enforcing the ordinances, the department also picked up all youths violating the curfew ordinance. Word circulated about the crackdown, and violators filled the courtrooms each week. After five weekends of intensive enforcement, the cruising and loitering problems were solved. Source: Revering (1993).
  3. Increasing police patrols. All cities that use police to address cruising problems do so on a large scale, employing foot, bike, and motorcycle officers to enforce existing ordinances to the fullest. (Foot patrol and bike officers can more easily move through congested traffic areas and parking lots, identifying violators and communicating with drivers.) Some cities have numerous off-duty officers work solely on cruising problems, while others have special units do so. Other jurisdictions have created a multiagency task force, deploying state troopers as well as local deputies and officers to quell the problem on weekends.27 However, such saturation patrol is normally quite expensive, and therefore unsustainable for the long term.
  4. Sentencing offenders to community service. People convicted of minor cruising-related offenses might be sentenced to do community service tasks pertaining to cruising, such as cleaning up litter left over after cruises, repairing property damaged during cruises, etc.28 This approach may reduce jail crowding and costs.29 While community service may be good policy and often receives widespread business and citizen support, it alone may not guarantee that offenders won’t cruise again .
  5. Setting up sobriety and vehicle inspection checkpoints. Sobriety and vehicle inspection checks can help remove intoxicated drivers and unsafe vehicles from the cruising area. They are, however, costly. Moreover, they may cause traffic congestion and confusion.