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LAPD launches team to combat illegal street racing in the Valley following a surge in deaths

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By Brenda Gazzar

Habib “Harry” Sabzerou was a soft-spoken Realtor who was so honest that he would point out all of the faults of the homes he was trying to sell.

He was the kind of father who would teasingly answer the phone with “Hi Dad!” when his grown daughter Del called, knowing those would be the first words she would say to him.

His daughter will never hear those words again. Sabzerou was fatally struck by a 16-year-old boy who, authorities say, was street racing illegally in Tarzana in January of last year.

“It’s really hard. You lose somebody whose life is fine because of somebody else’s poor judgement,” said Del Sabzerou, a corporate attorney. “It’s losing somebody … because someone is selfish because they want to use public roads as their own private race course.”

The Los Angeles Police Department’s Valley Traffic Division now has launched a Special Enforcement Team with the mission of curbing “the alarming rate of injuries and deaths” evident in recent months at street racing events and gatherings throughout the San Fernando Valley, said Sgt. Gregory Fuqua, who is the officer in charge of the team.

The team, comprised of a sergeant and six dedicated officers, is designed to deal with aggressive drivers associated with illegal street racing events, reckless driving and exhibition of speed. It is bolstered on its enforcement details by an officer from each of the Valley’s seven area stations and, if needed, a police helicopter.

“They are ready to make arrests, make impounds and crack down,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander, who chairs the council’s public safety committee and has advocated for more resources to combat the decades-old scourge.

The unit, which includes officers in unmarked vehicles who go undercover, monitors spots frequented by illegal street racers and spectators to crack down on illegal activities, including street takeovers and sideshows that feature dangerous stunts. It also targets illegally modified vehicles on the road and cites their drivers.

As of Thursday, the team had made more than two dozen arrests for racing-related events and impounded 10 vehicles for street racing, Fuqua said.

On Aug. 12, the team arrested 15 people on suspicion of being spectators at a sideshow and another person on suspicion of reckless driving after doing doughnuts in the road in an industrial area of Sylmar. The white Chevy pickup he was driving also was impounded.

“The scary thing was that a lot of families went out there and brought their children,” Fuqua said. “A lot of kids we saw (on video captured at the scene) would have to jump onto the sidewalk to avoid vehicles being engaged in reckless driving.”

LAPD launched an anti-street racing task force in the Valley in 2014, but it was disbanded after a little more than a year when the number of these incidents tapered off, Fuqua said. But police started to see a significant increase in street-racing and related activities, such as intersection takeovers, here starting late last year.

“We are always limited on available resources here (but) it was time to re-start a focused effort … on this illegal activity,” said Capt. Andrew Neiman, commanding officer of the Valley Traffic Division.

Last October, four adults in their early 20s were killed in a BMW that was speeding with another dark-colored sedan on Balboa Boulevard near Lassen Street in Northridge, Los Angeles police said. Neither the second vehicle nor its driver were ever found.

On July 4, LAPD officials say that a couple in their mid-20s and their unborn child were killed in the Northridge area after the boyfriend engaged in what police believe was an illegal street race with another vehicle. The surviving 23-year-old driver was arrested but county prosecutors had yet to charge him as of Friday.

Both incidents are believed to have been impromptu rather than pre-planned events, according to LAPD officials.

Today, illegal street racing activities are increasingly fueled by social media, Fuqua said. It’s not uncommon for participants to post video of illegal events, such as sideshows, on such sites.

“They get more brazen because they want that wow factor when they’re showing off to their friends on Facebook and Instragram,” Fuqua said.

Such events also are fueled by the high performance of newer-model muscle cars, including the Dodge Challenger Demon, which has about an 840-horsepower engine, he said.

“You give a kid a car and it has that much horsepower, and they’re pretty much an inexperienced driver…and it’s a recipe for a disaster,” Fuqua said.

Aaron Schwartzbart, founder and president of MotorGospel Ministries, which includes anti-street racing campaigns, said LAPD’s special enforcement team is “a long time coming.”

Having a team in the Valley similar to the one at LAPD’s Central Division led by Sgt. J. Jesse Garcia “is a huge milestone,” he said.

“In my opinion, that’s going to save lives,” said Schwartzbart, who is working with the department to encourage people to race legally at area racetracks.

Bonnie Corwin, who sits on the Hansen Dam Park Advisory Board, called illegal street racing “a huge problem” in the Valley.

While she’s waiting to see the results of the team’s efforts, she’s hopeful that having more police out there to observe, arrest and cite people will make a difference.

“I’m tired of seeing people die because of it,” she said.

Meanwhile, Del Sabzerou said she didn’t know if having the team in place last year might have prevented her 68-year-old father’s death. But she suggested that solving the problem will take more than just the efforts of law enforcement.

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