“What happened to me is fairly common.”
Listening to the experiences of dozens of bike theft victims, there were definitely commonalities.
While some of the bike theft victims I talked to were able to get the Chicago Police Department to assist them in retrieving their property, many others found themselves left to investigate the crimes themselves.
The Chicago Police Department’s apathy for bike thefts is surprising, considering the city’s recent love of cycling.
“I want Chicago to be the bike-friendliest city in the country,” stated Mayor Emanuel in 2011.
His opinion hasn’t changed since. His Chicago Streets for Cycling Plan 2020 is ambitious, calling for a 645-mile network of biking facilities by 2020.
Sadly, residents won’t be able to ride their bikes along the Mayor Emanuel Biking Highway if their rides get stolen.
“I attempted to file a report the day it was stolen but was unable to do so because I didn’t have the serial number,” one woman told me, as she detailed her experience with the Chicago Police Department. “I was told they only allowed reports with serial numbers…”
Multiple people told me the same thing: No serial number, no report.
In defense of Chicago’s police, a bike’s serial number is key. If your stolen Trek bike is recovered, the serial number is the only way police can identify the bike is definitely yours, and not one of the other thousands like it.
One bike theft victim, despite his lack of serial number, wouldn’t be dissuaded from reporting the theft. “I indicated that I was reporting the crime so that crime statistics for my neighborhood are accurate and police are staffed and funded accordingly.”
Only after saying that, did the officer he was talking to agree to file a report.
Another man had to explain that his bikes were “vintage Italian racing bikes from the ’70s, there aren’t any others like them in the city, maybe not even the country,” before police would file a report.
This is understandable. Between the internet and the real world, there are many places to turnover stolen bikes. If the thief is smart, all evidence they had the bike will have disappeared by the time you notice its gone.
Many thieves aren’t smart though. Sometimes, they leave a trail that’s easy for the bike theft victims to pick up. It’s the lack of help police provide after victims find evidence related to their stolen bikes that’s surprising.
One victim was smart, after someone crawled through her apartment window and stole her bike, she posted about her stolen bike on the Chicago Stolen Bike Registry and the Find Stolen Bikes Facebook group. Two months later, she started getting multiple messages from people who’d spotted her bike being sold on Facebook.
Her initial experience with 14th District officers wasn’t superb. “I got lectured by the police about how I needed to break my lease or get a gun for 5 minutes.”
With a solid lead on her bike, she contacted the police. The only catch? They couldn’t find the initial report she filed. She is one of a handful of people I talked to who all filed reports just to later find that those reports had disappeared.
She filed another report and, armed with a photo of the thief and his Facebook post, asked the department to investigate. Despite Facebook’s reputation as a market for stolen goods (bikes, smartphones, laptops etc.), the officers she talked to didn’t quite understand what she was telling them.
“They didn’t initially understand the concept of a Facebook group whatsoever, they kept trying to clarify ‘Wait so this is a website?'”
Initially, they told her to pose as a buyer and set up a time to meet the thief herself, promising to accompany her. She complained the department wasn’t doing anything about her burglary, and they promised to set up a plan to recover her bike themselves.
That was over a month ago. She hasn’t heard from them since.
Pose as a buyer, and police might agree to accompany you to the sale of your stolen bike — this is the impression many bike theft victims were given by police.
One man — whose initial report was also lost by police — was told this by officers after finding his stolen bike on Facebook. He played with the idea briefly, but then got a closer look at the teenager’s Facebook profile. It not only listed his name, but the high school he went to. There were also many photos, some with the teen in possession of illegal drugs. In one photo, the teen was holding a pistol.
Despite the drugs and the gun, the bike owner says police still wouldn’t make a move.
The man, married with kids, wasn’t too keen on approaching a possibly armed 17-year-old, even digitally. In the end, a bike mechanic who had worked on the bike years before saw the thief selling the bike outside his shop. The bike mechanic was able to help retrieve it and return it to its original owner.
Others were happy to pose as buyers and meet with the thieves that stole their bikes.
Nick Wright, 28, was lucky. Not only did he arrange a meet with the person who stole his bike, he had support from the Chicago Police Department. After the thief walked up to him at their designated meeting place, a friend of Wright’s texted police, just like they had planned with officers half an hour beforehand, and then, “Law & Order-style, CPD pulled up from every direction in the intersection.”
A few others I talked to had similar stories. Another bike owner, after seeing his bike at Swap-O-Rama, a flea market on Ashland notorious among bikers for selling stolen goods, was able to get officers to accompany him inside to retrieve it. In total, I talked to five individuals who felt the Chicago Police Department were helpful.
This is in contrast to the 15 individuals I talked to who found the Chicago Police Department unhelpful. In many instances, they were surprised to find proof of their stolen bikes just to have police tell them to investigate it themselves. Some were frustrated that the officers they talked to wouldn’t file reports because they didn’t have serial numbers. Others didn’t bother reporting their latest bike theft incident, having had bad experiences with the Chicago Police Department when previous bikes had been stolen from them in the past.
And yes, some had so little faith in the Chicago Police Department they took the law into their own hands, meeting the bike thieves without police backup, and either buying the bike back or scaring the thieves off.
Who cares? We’re talking about bikes here. Chicago police have more pressing matters, violence chief among them, to deal with.
If that’s your response to this article, I have to admit, that’s my knee-jerk response too.
But there is a legitimate worry here.
What if the way the Chicago Police Department handles stolen bikes is indicative of how the department works as a whole?
What other crimes get handled in similar fashion? How often are Chicagoans told to essentially investigate crimes themselves? How often are people dissuaded from filing police reports? How often do police reports just vanish?
No, maybe you don’t care about stolen bikes, but an ineffective police department seems like something that should concern everyone.
To even things out, I’m going to discuss the mistakes bike owners make. Eventually, assuming the Chicago Police Department honors my Freedom of Information Act request, I’ll dig into police reports to see what we can learn from them.
Read others articles in this bike thefts series here.