By Joe Hughes
August 25, 2007
SAN DIEGO – An innovative and acclaimed San Diego police unit created six years ago to curb illicit street racing has been disbanded – a victim of police staffing shortages and, perhaps, its own success.

Called Drag Net, the team was created when San Diego was among the hottest places in the country for street racing.
In 2002, there were 16 deaths and 31 serious injuries in the city from the loosely organized underground events, police said. Racers, spectators who lined the race routes and unsuspecting motorists were victims.

Over the past two years, San Diego police officials say only one death was linked to drag racing.

“The team did great work, and I hope we can bring it back when we have more officers,” said San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne.

Some Drag Net functions are being absorbed by other officers based at the city's division stations. Drag Net officers have been assigned to the auto-theft detail.

Lansdowne said his priority now is staffing enough officers for patrol duty. The department is down 220 officers, primarily because of attrition and difficulty in recruiting.

The Drag Net unit of a half-dozen officers was financed by a grant by the state Office of Traffic Safety. The grant expired in April, and police do not have funds to keep it going.

The team would comb Web sites that advertise last-minute locations for the clandestine races. Team members would swoop in on the thousands of onlookers and participants at the nighttime gatherings in places such as Kearny Mesa and Otay Mesa.

They went undercover to surreptitiously film racers at the illegal events, recording faces and license plates – many from the fleeing fans and racers. An arrest warrant would be compiled, and the dragsters would be arrested at home.

Even the San Diego City Council got into the act, approving an emergency ordinance in 2002 that made spectators at the events subject to arrest and fines of up to $1,000 or six months in jail.

In the first use of the ordinance, 55 race watchers were arrested in March 2003 on a Sunday afternoon in Otay Mesa. Fifteen racers also were taken into custody.

Much of the credit for the demise of illegal drag racing also goes to RaceLegal, a 10-year-old nonprofit group that sponsors legal races at Qualcomm Stadium. The next race is Sept. 7.

The opening in 2003 of the Barona Drag Strip – the first permanent drag-racing facility built in the county in 37 years – has helped, too.

Assistant Police Chief Joel Bryden said concerns remain over the spontaneous races that continue on city streets and freeways.

“These are usually the result of some road-rage incident,” Bryden said.

Drag Net received international attention when law enforcement in England and Turkey had trouble curbing street racing and turned to the San Diego unit for help.

Officers from Turkey came to San Diego to learn about Drag Net and set up their own version.