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Chicago Police Less Willing To Curb Bike Thefts Than Some Other Cities, Internet Vigilantes

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Bikes! They're yours for the taking (please don't take them). (Photo Credit: Mason Johnson)

Bikes! They’re yours for the taking (please don’t take them). (Photo Credit: Mason Johnson)

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By Mason JohnsonThis is part one of a series of articles on bike thefts. You’ll be able to see future articles here.

How many bikes are stolen in Chicago every year?

I don’t know.

Nor does the Chicago Police Department. They don’t keep track of individual bike thefts, which are categorized with all other larcenies. Even if they wanted to give you a number, they wouldn’t have one to give.

Talking to individuals who’ve had their bikes stolen, I found one sentiment shared time and time again: “The police won’t do anything.”

While I found a handful of people who found Chicago police officers that were more than willing to help, the overwhelming feeling victims shared with me was that the police did not have the time for them.

“I understand why the police department can’t devote man-hours or resources to chasing bike thieves…” one individual told me, citing Chicago’s violent crime as a much higher priority. “… It’s the unfortunate reality, and hence bike thieving continues unabated.”

Others shared the same thought — why would cops concentrate on bike thefts when they’re dealing with the city’s violent crimes — but also wondered, “Does it have to be one or the other?”

While the Chicago Police Department may not keep track of stolen bikes, the Chicago Stolen Bike Registry does. According to their numbers, there have been 434 thefts, 8 of which were parts thefts, from January 1st to July 15th. In 2013, StolenBike.org received a total of 1154 reports, 18 of which were parts thefts. We’re currently in the middle of a bike theft spike, with 80% of the Chicago Stolen Bike Registry’s reports usually occurring from the beginning of May to the end of October.

To be clear, these numbers only reflect the small number of people who’ve registered their stolen bikes on StolenBike.org, and is most likely a fraction of the actual bike thefts that have happened in Chicago.

The Chicago Stolen Bike Registry is one of the few non-police resources available to Chicagoans that have had their bikes stolen. People register their bikes on their website, including a photo and details of the theft, and it’s then up to concerned citizens to keep a lookout for the owner’s stolen property. While it’s unlikely you’ll retrieve your bike if it’s ever stolen, the Chicago Stolen Bike Registry definitely helps victims where the Chicago Police Department fails them. If one of the Chicago Stolen Bike Registry’s many devotees sees a bike from the registry being sold somewhere else, maybe Facebook or Craigslist, they don’t hesitate to alert the original owner.

“The bright shining star of the whole experience wasn’t getting the bike back,” said one man who received numerous phone calls from Good Samaritans after registering his bike with the Chicago Stolen Bike Registry. “But having so many complete strangers offer to help.”

Multiple bike theft victims I talked to found their thieves online, either thanks to their own sleuthing or the Chicago Stolen Bike Registry. They complained that the Chicago police wouldn’t do anything, even when there were photos of the thieves available. On occasion, if the victim was able to pose as a buyer and convince the thief to meet them in public, officers would accompany the victim to the meet-up, but not always.

Some of the victims feel its the city’s lack of effort to retrieve stolen bikes that makes bike thievery so rampant. If thieves know cops are unlikely to pursue them, why not steal? Others I talked to say thieves know that most victims won’t put much effort into retrieving their bikes. Nick Wright, 28, is one Chicagoan who recently had his bike stolen. Quoting officers responding to his bike theft, Wright said people assume “insurance will cover our stolen goods, like computers, phones and bikes. So no one goes after them, which makes these thieves think they can keep getting away with thefts that aren’t so expensive that police nor victims will pursue them.”

Chicago isn’t alone when it comes to bike thefts. The entire country has seen a rise in bikers in recent years, which also means a rise in bike thefts.

Following a five-year plan to make itself more bike friendly, San Francisco saw a surge in biking and bike thefts. According to the New York Times, there was a 70% rise in bike thefts from 2006 to 2012, a year in which 4,035 bikes were stolen.

To combat bike thefts, the San Francisco Police Department started a bait bike program. Equipping expensive bikes with GPS devices, the police use these bikes to bait thieves, tracking them after thieves steal them. Once thieves are arrested, the San Francisco Police Department turns to social media, posting photos of the culprits from their Twitter account.

San Francisco is far from the first city to use a bait bike program. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Police Department started tracking bait bikes in 2008. According to the UW-Madison website, the first year their bait bike program was deployed, they saw a 40% drop in bike thefts.

Some question bait bike programs, criticizing that it doesn’t catch serious bike thieves, it just entraps the poor. San Francisco’s program has been questioned by citizens who say programs like this create a wider inequality gap, while SF police argue that the program isn’t targeting the poor, it’s targeting serial bike thieves who are able to break through locks.

Last year, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority started using cardboard cutouts of a police officer to help discourage thieves. According to a WCVB report last year, the cardboard cutout placed at Alewife T Station, a train station that’s a popular bike theft spot, helped. As of August 2013, the MBTA was claiming bike thefts were down about half at the Alewife T Station compared to the year before. The surveillance cameras and locked cage they added probably helped too.

While CPD doesn’t have cardboard cutouts of police officers, they do have a registration program. If your bike does go missing and ends up in police custody, already having it registered would be the easiest way to ensure it gets back to you. Th New York Police Department also has a bike registry program, most major cities do, but doesn’t have anything like the bate bike programs San Francisco and Madison have put into action. In general, New York seems to be on par with Chicago when it comes to bike theft prevention.

Chicago Police also recommend you have the serial number for your bike on hand. According to many of the individuals I talked to who had their bikes stolen, this is the only way police can verify without a doubt the bike is yours, and police are therefore reluctant to even file a police report without it.

Other than that, CPD recommends you use a heavy-duty chain lock, u-lock or — better yet — both. They also recommend you make sure whatever you’re chaining your bike to is secured to the ground or a building.

Next week, I’ll go into more details about the unique bike theft stories I’ve heard around Chicago. After that, I’ll take a closer look at police reports from bike theft incidents. Once published, those articles will appear here.

Mason Johnson is a Web Content Producer for CBS Chicago. You can find him on Twitter.

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