Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Taking bike theft a bit more seriously

I recently wrote about how bike thieves go to the special hell, bemoaning the fact that anyone would up and steal someone's (non-polluting) mode of transportation and source of general good times. Another discussion that sprung up from that concerned how local police tend to deal (or don't) with bike thefts. In the comments section, Nataraj Hauser related one particularly troubling story:
It's not just bicycles, it's theft in general that MPD doesn't take seriously. When my motorcycle was stolen in September, the officer responding to my call flat out told me I'd probably never see my cycle again (a functional but absolutely unstunning Honda CB200, scarcely larger than a moped). The next spring I went to the police auction and lo and behold, there was my cycle, WITH MY CASE NUMBER WRITTEN ON THE SEAT. MPD had recovered the bike 24 hours after I reported it stolen, yet couldn't be bothered to TELL ME they had recovered it. Instead they were going to sell it at auction. If I were only slightly more cynical, I'd assume collusion. Lose a bike? Check the auction next spring.
The Capital Times today features an article detailing a new UW Police initiative that places "bait bikes" around campus, equipped with GPS devices, as a way of catching more thieves and, hopefully, deterring the crime all-together. Apparently, similar programs in other cities have produced positive results, so I will be interested to see how this one plays out.

Again, though, in the comments section someone asks if registering your bike with the city will improve your chances of getting it back. Another person responded, "I hear that if your bike is stolen and auctioned at a police auction, even though it was 'registered' and you recognize it as your bike, the police will still not give it back to you."

I certainly hope that's not true, but Hauser's story above seems to cast a serious shadow of doubt on that hope. The overall difficulty of recovering stolen bikes in the first place is understandable--there are a lot of bikes out there, and a lot of more pressing crimes to be sure--but if the police actually do find yours, especially if it's registered, shouldn't it follow that they make an at least passing attempt to get it back to you? Registration is actually legally required in Madison, including a fine for noncompliance. Are we actually getting anything for our dollars, though?

Another idea posited in the comments section of that article is that the fine associated with a bike theft conviction ought to be raised. It currently stands at $200, which, when compared to the price of most stolen bicycles, is hardly a drop in the bucket. If you stand to make $500 or more on the sale of a stolen bike, the threat of a $200 fine (if you get caught at all, which doesn't seem to happen much) must seem pretty paltry.

Clearly these are issues that require more follow-up, and I intend to track down some answers in the near future. But if you have any stories or information relating to this, please post them in the comments section. I'm deeply curious!

In the meantime, the article's advice on locking up your bikes is sound. I'm constantly amazed at how many bikes I see just left leaning against buildings around town, the owners presumably inside running a quick errand and apparently sure that the quick trip won't result in a stolen ride. Wrong. Bike thefts can happen in the blink of an eye, especially when you don't lock them up. So while we all work on better deterrents and punishments for the crime, be sure to at least do your part for prevention.


Dustin Christopher said...

BTW, I passed off part of this post to our station's "Wisconsin Guys" when they were discussing the topic yesterday afternoon, and they loved it.

Emily said...

Fantastic, thanks!

The Lost Albatross