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Bike vigilantes: Victims strike back

SF Weekly: Bike vigilantes: Victims strike back

By Lauren Smiley
Published on November 16, 2009 at 3:27pm

A couple of weekends ago, Malcolm McMahon was on his way to buy a steel U-lock for his bike when he stopped at the Mission Branch Library, chaining his bicycle to a streetlight with a flimsy cable. When he walked out 10 minutes later, his stomach sank — no bike.

Having just moved from New Jersey, the 22-year-old City College student had become the latest victim of the San Francisco "fuck you." A library clerk told him it happens all the time. The bike shop said the same.

Understand that McMahon is no gearhead: He says he knows nothing about bikes, and is just an "average guy" who moved here "to get my rear in gear." Yet somehow the theft roused something in him — a sense of injustice, perhaps. He was appalled to learn that San Francisco had no "bait bike" program like the ones in other cities he had read about online, in which bikes are put out to lure unwitting thieves who are then arrested.

So McMahon decided to do something. He posted an announcement on Craigslist headlined "Bike Thefts Must Stop/You Can Help $1," calling for people to "band together" for "ethical and legal methods of capture and prosecution." In three days, he received more than 130 e-mails.

His idea was to place a bait bike out with a crappy lock and wait for a thief to home in. Once a thief cut the lock off, up to 10 volunteers nearby — "one at a bus stop, one reading a newspaper on a park bench, a couple panhandling for change," as McMahon imagined it — would surround the thief and "use enough force" to make a citizen’s arrest and call the cops.

McMahon discussed his plans with Officer Calvin Chow at Mission Police Station. "I said, I don’t know," Chow recalls. "You think these people are just going to stop and submit to your guys? A lot of times they don’t submit to us."

Chow said he counseled McMahon about the dangers: The thief could have a weapon. If the volunteers became too aggressive, they could face charges instead of the thief. Plus, there’s no guarantee that the district attorney would prosecute the charge. (DA spokesman Brian Buckelew seemed amused by McMahon’s idea: "That’s funny. It’s possible.") Chow thinks he had little impact: "I got the idea he’s really going to go ahead and do this, even after my caution not to," he said, chuckling. "I told him, e-mail me if you do."

McMahon says his group might still consider the citizen’s arrest route, yet will focus on Plan B: placing a GPS or radio transmitter device on the bike, which volunteers with receivers can then track down. With just 10 "supercommitted" volunteers at this point, he and his allies launched a blog last week, and will post fliers to attract more. The title? The Concerned Cyclists Community Program — the CCCP, "just like old Russia," he says. Bike thieves beware: The comrades are watching.