Police confront series of Santa Rosa sideshow attempts

Officers prevented several sideshows Saturday night, but they were unable to stop one at Guerneville and Willowside roads west of Santa Rosa, according to police.|

Law enforcement agencies from around Sonoma County banded together late Saturday into early Sunday as police tried to stop a traveling crowd from taking over local intersections for displays of illegal car stunts.

Police were able to stop most of the displays, known as sideshows, before the crowds got established, said Santa Rosa Police Lt. Tommy Isachsen.

But the group took over the intersection of Guerneville and Willowside roads west of Santa Rosa before authorities could break them up, Isachsen said.

He estimated the large gathering of sideshow participants and spectators included about 300 vehicles, many of which were filled with passengers.

“We were seeing carloads of people, like four to five in a car, teenagers and young adults, following these sideshows,” he said.

Santa Rosa police arrested four people in connection with the sideshows, issued at least eight citations, impounded three vehicles and made 33 traffic stops, officials said.

The crowd tried to take over five intersections, four of which were in Santa Rosa, during the course of the night. The only one police could not prevent — which they did by arriving before the majority of the crowd and blocking off the intersections — was the one outside of city limits at Guerneville and Willowside roads, according to Isachsen.

The crowd tried twice to set up a sideshow at Sebastopol Road and West Avenue in the Roseland neighborhood. Following the second attempt just before midnight, police shut down streets in the area for just over 90 minutes.

Other locations where the group tried to start sideshows included Stony Point Road and Bellevue Avenue, Piner and Fulton roads and Aston Way and Petaluma Hill Road.

Sideshow spectators hurled beer bottles at law enforcement vehicles throughout the night, Isachsen said, which is something police routinely face when responding to sideshows. There were no reports of injuries or major damage to Santa Rosa police patrol cars, according to Isachsen.

Police made dozens of traffic stops and noted that, in addition to Sonoma County residents, the crowd included people who had come from Marin County and the East Bay, Isachsen said.

It was disheartening to police, Isachsen said, that so many Sonoma County residents were packing into the crowd and giving sideshow participants who had come from other parts of the region “an audience for them to want to come up here.”

Police noted that the crowds of sideshow participants began to gather at about 10:30 p.m. Saturday.

Officials then activated a relatively new protocol for responding to the displays, which was developed this year and involves any available officers from agencies around the county joining forces to try to stop the gatherings.

The protocol, which Santa Rosa Police Chief John Cregan called “a proactive and coordinated approach” was successful in preventing sideshows during the Fourth of July holiday weekend, according to police.

Authorities believe the effort worked, in part, because the Santa Rosa Police Department had officers working overtime to bulk up the staff in anticipation of sideshows and illegal fireworks displays, Isachsen said.

But, on Saturday night, responding law enforcement didn’t have the same volume of extra help they had the week prior. The crowd they were working to break up was also much larger, according to Isachsen.

“We didn’t see the same volume of cars over the July Fourth weekend versus what we saw last night,” Isachsen said Sunday.

In addition to Santa Rosa police, authorities from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, the California Highway Patrol, the Rohnert Park Department of Public Safety and the Cotati, Petaluma and Sonoma State University police departments responded Saturday night.

Sideshows have proliferated in Sonoma County since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, according to authorities. The dangerous displays, in which drivers perform doughnuts, figure-eights and other tricks in proximity to a crowd, got their start in Oakland in the ’80s.

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Pera at matthew.pera@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Matt__Pera.

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