With the problem on the rise, UW Police host a Bike Theft Symposium

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UWPD Chief John Vinson outlines the bike theft problem.

Bike theft is up, at least on UW campus.

“It’s our number one property crime on campus,” said UW Police Deputy Chief Csaba Maczala. “That’s a good thing, since violent crime is down. So I’m glad we most have to deal with property crime.”

So the UW Police reached out to community partners and hosted a Bike Theft Symposium Tuesday to come up with some ideas for how to decrease thefts and increase the chances victims will get their bikes back.

Officer Keith Jackson presented a very achievable goal of reducing theft reports 15 percent by the last quarter of 2016.

The annual cost of bike theft on campus? $118,354, and that’s not even counting parts stolen off bikes or bikes that are stolen but not reported to police. We know this because part of their effort to focus on battling bike theft so far has been to gather and analyze data to see if they can find patterns to target.

Kendra Borzio presents her data analysis

Kendra Borzio presents her data analysis

UWPD Analyst Kendra Borzio found that year-over-year, the hottest days for bike theft are Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. Most thefts occur during the day.

56 percent of stolen bikes were secured only with cable locks, which are easily cut with common bolt cutters. This includes desirable higher-end bikes. So if you think you’re cutting costs or dropping weight from your bike by using a cable lock, it’s really a big gamble.

In fact, whenever UWPD successfully reunites someone with their stolen bike, they include a free u-lock when they return the bike.

So using a quality lock (and locking up securely) is obviously one way big way to protect people from bike theft, and much of the conversation during the symposium revolved around how to better teach people how to keep their bike secure. Better signage near bike racks? Lessons during orientation? Deals with local bike shops to help encourage buying a u-lock over a cable lock?

Conversation also focused on how to get more UW community members to register their bikes with free services like Project 529 and Bike Index (Seattle Bike Blog partners with Bike Index to power our Stolen Bike Listings, but the services share data). It’s a somewhat tricky problem since almost nobody knows their bike’s serial number, an important piece of information to include when registering. There seemed to be general agreement that engaging people and offering the free registration while they are with their bikes would probably be more effective than just sending out a mass email or including it in a welcome packet.

Commute challenges like Bike Month and Ride in the Rain could also be a good way to also get people to register their bikes.

There was also a lot of talk about how to improve the campus bike parking, including audits of which kinds of racks and rack placements draw the most theft and which work the best.

Ultimately, stealing bikes is an “old reliable scheme to get some quick cash,” as Officer Jackson put it. And there are a handful of people who commit a huge chunk of these crimes.

But as Deputy Chief Maczala said, “We can’t arrest our way out of this problem.”

And that’s where the conversation during the symposium fell short. There was a lot of good talk about how to better get bike owners to protect their bikes and a little talk about some facilities and policing work that can help. But the elephant in the room during nearly every bike theft conversation is addressing the root causes of property crime.

And it makes sense why people avoid them since the issues are just so big. Poverty, limited drug treatment opportunities and ineffective drug enforcement policies, access to a job, prisoner reentry challenges, affordable housing, and other causes that can lead to theft are huge social problems to solve. But until we do so, we need to understand that we’re really just mitigating damages.

Maybe that’s a worthy enough goal on its own. If we can reunite people with their bikes, that should be seen as a good thing even if it doesn’t lead to arrests and convictions. That’s how King County Sheriff’s Officer Cindi West explained her work in the past year to reunite people with their stolen bikes while patrolling in downtown Seattle.

“I’ve been a cop for 31 years, and it makes me feel better to get these bikes back to people and see their faces than it does taking someone to jail for many crimes,” she said in a conversation a couple months ago. For her, keeping an eye our for bikes she saw on Bike Index was a way to get a spark of positivity in her work instead of only dealing with the negatives. Police officers often only see people during their worst life moments, so I can see how returning a bike could be pretty rewarding. Maybe that means the thief just goes and steals a different bike. Who knows? But at least one person got their beloved means of transportation back.

UWPD does have GPS bait bike equipment. Perhaps tracking where bikes go can lead to bigger busts and make buying bikes less appealing to bigger fencing operations. After all, if you’re trafficking bigger products like drugs or guns, maybe it will no longer be worth the risk to also traffic bikes if one of them might lead cops to your front door. Or at the very least, we can learn some things about how stolen bikes move around our city.

And both Seattle and UW Police can do better to help people report their thefts or follow-up on leads to help people get their bikes back.

One idea I’ve heard tossed around by many different people — but did not come up today — is to have a single SPD officer be the point person for bike thefts. Too often, bikes don’t get recovered because the system is too slow to respond to a police street stop or an online sale on Offerup or Craigslist. Better use of existing tools, like Bike Index and Project 529, and someone coordinating within SPD and between SPD and UWPD could get far more bikes back to their owners.

Meanwhile, Bike Index keeps assisting in getting bikes back. Here’s a roundup just of November recoveries. There were a ton. Q13 also profiled a few examples of how people are taking matters into their own hands to assist in bike recoveries:

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26 Responses to With the problem on the rise, UW Police host a Bike Theft Symposium

  1. Doug Bostrom says:

    I wonder if cyclists could option to have their vehicle registered more along the lines of an automobile, gaining the thereby the entire massively more harsh penalty structure that goes along with motor vehicle theft?

    Note: Option for legal protection, not the tiresome “they should have to buy tags” thing.

    A $1,000 automobile used automobile employed for the purpose of traveling to work or school is treated entirely differently in the eyes of the law than an identically priced bicycle employed for the same purpose. Step-by-step, why is this? One could say that a stolen automobile is more dangerous than a stolen bicycle but it’s fairly clear from the letter of the law that the distinction does not lie there.

    I’ve often thought that tools of workers and some of the other basic tools needed for making a living should care special legal heft when stolen.

    Perhaps at root the problem is that people who steal cars and bikes for a living are simply not bright enough to imagine what will happen after they’ve rolled the dice too many times, are thus impervious to legal discouragements.

    • Andrew says:

      I like the idea. I don’t have a fully formed thought on this, but I wonder if some of the perception has do with the inbuilt security of cars?

      with a car, the main anti-theft mechanisms is built in: car keys. to start the car you must open a (hopefully locked) door, and turn a car key in the ignition.

      with a bike, all you have to do is step on and pedal away. Unless it’s locked up with a lock you buy separately there’s no security on it at all.

    • Josh says:

      If you read the legislative history, motor vehicle theft laws were written by and for people who buy new cars — the Legislature specifically refers to motor vehicles as the second-largest “investment” that households own, after their homes. (A statistic that reveals far more about the people who wrote the law than it does the value of automobiles in American households…)

      There’s essentially a presumption that a motor vehicle is worth more than $5,000, the threshold for other property theft becoming a Class B felony rather than Class C for thefts valued $750-$5,000.

      While I doubt we’ll get the Legislature to give bicycles the same priority as motor vehicles, but perhaps, starting at a local level, we could convince police departments to assume the default value of a stolen bicycle is more than $750, the threshold between misdemeanor and felony theft? (If I remember correctly, NBDA puts average retail at just over $700 for a new bicycle by itself, but add the value of lights, fenders, and a speedometer, and a default value over $750 sounds entirely plausible.)

      • Doug Bostrom says:

        Roger on the fenders etc. My wife’s custom Xmas-present dynamo-powered lighting+battery charger panacea* I’m just finishing gets us a good way to to the magic number all by itself, given a decent wheel, spokes and the hub.

        And this thing ends up parked every day at the UW. 8-0

        *Hub dynamo is actually an alternator, I find, meaning that a rectifier & filter are required along with the regulator for safe LiPo battery input. Fortunately all of this stuff is tiny, so it goes into a length of adhesive heatshrink quite nicely to form a waterproof package. No more forgetting to plug in. :-)

      • Josh says:

        Luxos U dynamo headlight includes built-in USB charging port. Keeps my phone alive on longer rides, but wouldn’t charge a big battery very quickly.

    • Doug Bostrom says:

      I spent quite a bit of time looking at commercially available options for properly integrated electrical supply on a bike (akin to what automobiles have had for 100+ years) and drew a blank on something combining all of the necessary features.

      The showstopper on most systems are silly proprietary battery packs. Check out automobiles and you’ll find a relatively standardized, affordable and permanently available means of battery replacement. Conversely, bicycle lighting manufacturers seem hell-bent on each reinventing various slightly defective forms of the wheel, over and over again, as though each were on their own planet. Ironically, the mostly nasty Amazon/eBay no-name lighting kits are not so much affected by this, probably because they can’t afford precious industrial design work.

  2. R says:

    Reed Collage in Portland apparently has a bait bike program. I also wonder if a concerted effort to cover bike racks with good video surveillance, properly monitored, supplemented with identical looking decoy cameras would be helpful.

    Part of the problem at UW is stupid interdepartmental politics and the ability to shirk responsibility which is the type of thing that this type of summit could successfully if somebody at the top takes good notes and keeps people accountable.

  3. William C. says:

    “56 percent of stolen bikes were secured only with cable locks”

    Does this mean that 44% were secured with U-locks and stolen anyway? Or were they not secured at all?

    • Gordon says:

      Inquiring minds would like to know. How many were secured with a u-lock or heavy duty chain through the frame and wheel with a secondary lock on the other wheel? In other words, how many were properly locked?

      • Peri Hartman says:

        That’s a good question. I’ve often wondered how secure a U-lock is. Apparently, with a grinder, it takes about 5-10 minutes to cut through a U-lock – with a lot of bright sparks.

        Given human nature, most people would probably ignore someone generating sparks while cutting a lock. But at least it would be noticeable. Having a security camera capturing activity at each bike rack would at least give an opportunity for a security guard to take notice.

        Or, given some relatively simple visual AI, software could detect when sparks are happening and sound an alert.

      • Josh says:

        No sparks necessary, for most U-locks it’s quiet and inconspicuous to pop them with a stubby bottle jack.

      • Josh says:

        Not all U-locks are created equal, and even a really heavy chain is a 30-second theft for an experienced thief with good bolt cutters.

        U-locks and heavy chains are *more* secure than cables against poorly-equipped thieves, they’ll at least get them to look for a less-securely locked bike to steal instead.

        But there’s no bike lock that can’t be defeated.

    • Doug Bostrom says:

      The same question occurred to me. Presumably some were not locked at all, but even with that it makes me wonder about the received wisdom of lockage.

    • Jimmy says:

      It probably also includes bikes that were “unlocked” but were in an apartment building bike carge, home garage, bike rack on their car, front or back porch, etc.

  4. Jim says:

    How do thieves make money off stolen bikes? Who is buying the stolen bikes and parts and where do they buy them? Some education about this would seem to allow the community to make decisions which would limit or cut off this profit chain.

    • Bryan Hance says:

      In short, they part them out, resell them, or both. There’s a whole network of grey- and black- market guys in the chain who part stolen bikes, mix and match them, bundle them up and sell them, and/or resell them either in person in places like swap meets or online in FB groups, on sites like ebay, craigslist, offerupnow, etc.

      They also routinely stash them in storage units, which is a whole other story for another time.

      Most people who are buying usually have no idea they’re getting stolen goods – until of course they take the bike home and run the serial on BikeIndex. Read our latest wrap-up at bikeindex.org/news if you’d like some real-world examples of this. We do know of guys who basically turn a blind eye to make a buck, too, we’ve tracked one guy in CA for example for three years who we know buys from thieves in order to move bikes two cities away and resell them for a massive profit. We’ve pulled back about 5 or 6 bikes from this guy and yet there he is, still selling online, every day. He makes a good living, judging by his sale prices.

      Every single day we’re finding stolen bikes for sale on one particular website, for example, mentioned above. It is literally a daily occurrence, and it taxes both our resources and the resources of the police because the site being used has convoluted and difficult processes for victims when they find their stolen bikes online. So most victims just throw up their hands and give up, rather than put themselves in danger of meeting up with some meth’d out criminal over a stolen bike. It’s maddening.

      We also just found one guy in Renton who strips them completely down and sells the frames and parts on Ebay. He got caught, but he’s still selling bikes, FWIW. He has absolutely excellent ratings, too and why wouldn’t he – he’s selling bike at a 100% profit even when they’re selling at 20-30% of their value.

  5. Matthew Snyder says:

    It’s nice to see UWPD talking about this, but it would really be great to hear some goals that are easier to embrace. Maybe it’s just me, but hoping for a 15% reduction in theft reports by the end of next calendar year seems like setting sights a little bit low. That won’t even reduce the number of theft reports to the level of previous years!

    There were several overt chop-shops operating just blocks from campus for months on end, at various times over the last year. Sure, maybe you can’t arrest your way out of the problem, but that doesn’t mean you put your head in the sand and pretend it’s not happening. UWPD and SPD both seemed terribly uninterested in doing anything about them, despite repeated reports from multiple individuals.

  6. Bill N says:

    This would slow down considerably if Craigslist and Offerupnow would require serial numbers for all bikes posted. Not sure if our legislature has the motivation to make this happen. Also, bike shops could enter in serial numbers into the database so everyone would be able to find their serial number easily in case it was stolen.

  7. Gary says:

    While a good lock can make a bicycle harder to steal, a safe place to park during the day does a lot more good than just having a lock. That’s where I see the jobs program kicking in, a person whose job it is, to lock in and out your bike. Safe, dry and all the various parts still on the frame. I can lock the frame, the tires, with a chain, U-lock and cable, but then there is the seat, seatpost, handlebars etc…… and with a battery powered angle grinder, all of it will come off in a minute or two.

    Which brings me back to your earlier post about a bicycle parking service at the UW Husky Light Rail station. Seems like a logical place to locate one. Covered, safe and convenient.

  8. Tristan says:

    SPD should put the bike theft data in a nice format and run a challenge like the Pronto data challenge. Use machine learning to deanonymize the bike thieves!

  9. Allan Sjogren says:

    An RFID chip embedded in or attached to a bike component coupled with a database and RFID sensors along heavily used bike corridors could cheaply detect stolen bikes.

    Hand held RFID scanners could be used walking through suspected U-Store facilities to quickly locate stolen bikes.

    These chips are cheap.

    I takes a little budget and a desire to follow through on the part of the authorities.

  10. Jon says:

    What about investigating the open air chop shop in Ballard off the Burke? It’s a highway from UW right to the chop tents. And we witness dudes rolling bikes and parts there daily.

  11. Don Brubeck says:

    It’s not just the lock that is vulnerable. Lots of racks are vulnerable. If someone can unbolt a leg of a U rack they may be able to just slip that 5-* U-lock right off the rack. Or if they saw though coat-hanger rod or pipe-cut the tubing so user’s don’t notice, thieves can watch for a nice bike to get locked up, then twist the cut rack and slip off the bike+lock. Beware. And if you are picking the rack, pick one with square tubing that won’t fit pipe cutters and use vandal-resistant fasteners into concrete.

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