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Police Use High-Tech Lures to Reel in Bike Thieves

The New York Times: Police Use High-Tech Lures to Reel in Bike Thieves

By MATT RICHTEL

MAY 27, 2014

SAN FRANCISCO — Officer Matt Friedman fights crime with modern tools: Twitter, which he uses to publicize pictures of suspects and convicted criminals, and a GPS device, which he uses to track down stolen property.

In both cases, his lure is stolen bicycles — including the “bait bikes” that have recently been seeded throughout the city to tempt potential thieves. Equipped with GPS technology, the bicycles, which exist to be stolen, can be tracked down in real time and the thieves can be arrested. Then their photographs are posted to Twitter from the handle @SFPDBikeTheft. The bait bikes are of high value, to ensure that people caught taking them are charged with a felony.

Recently, for example, a thief took a $1,500 bicycle from outside a train stop and pedaled off into the sunset. But 30 minutes later, Officer Friedman and his team, having tracked the bike, converged on the rider at a park.

“You should have seen his face — he thought he was in the clear,” said Officer Friedman, 41, who carries a .40-caliber Sig Sauer semiautomatic and an iPhone 5, which he used that day to take a picture of the severed bike lock. He then posted an image on Twitter with the message: Thank You 4 Taking Our Bait Bike.

This is what it looks like when the police in San Francisco decide to apply high-tech tactics, including using social media, to an urban nuisance. Bike theft here has soared in recent years, up 70 percent from 2006 to 2012, a year in which about 4,035 bicycles were taken, according to the latest estimate by the city.

The rash in thefts owes to the increase of bikers and their fancy two-wheelers. These are not your childhood Schwinns with banana seats, but $1,500 or more (sometimes $10,000) technical marvels, celebrated in this ecologically devout, outdoorsy tech culture like an iPad mated with a Tesla. Bikes can be all too easily snagged from outside offices or inside garages, then resold in flea markets or chopped up and sold piecemeal. Often, the police say, the culprits are drug addicts in need of a quick fix.

The proliferation of bikes was in part fostered by the city: In 2009, San Francisco embarked on a five-year plan to make itself more bike accessible, adding bike lanes and issuing safety messages. The changes were welcome in a city that has great biking weather, limited parking and a hip, young population that views pumping up steep hills on a titanium road horse as a healthy and calorie-burning commute.

The growing popularity nationwide of commuting by bicycle is also playing a part. The Census Bureau recently reported a 60 percent increase in the number of Americans who bike to work from 2000 to the survey period, 2008-12. In that survey, San Francisco tied for fifth (with Seattle) with 3.4 percent of workers commuting by bike; city officials say figures show a 75 percent increase in bike commuting since 2000.

Last summer, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors approved $75,000 to support local efforts against bike theft — including money for bait bikes and tracking equipment — and the effort got into full swing this year. Officer Friedman is the head of the department’s de facto anti-bike-theft unit, based at the Park Station, which encompasses the storied hippie neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury (explaining why Officer Friedman’s new unit logo is a Grateful Dead-like skeleton riding a bike).

The bait bike program is not unique to San Francisco; various cities and college campuses have been busy adopting them. The programs are meant both to get thieves off the street and to act as a deterrent, making prospective criminals unsure which bike might be bait and not bounty.

At the University of Wisconsin, Madison, a pioneer in the bait bike movement, the police department saw a 40 percent drop in reported bike thefts on campus in 2008, its first year using the tactic. The police there also use social media, but mainly to put out the word about the bait bikes, not to shame the perpetrators by posting their photographs, said Marc Lovicott, a spokesman for the department. But he sounded impressed by the tactic. “Interesting — we haven’t gone that far,” he said, adding that they might.

More often Officer Friedman’s postings on Twitter are pedestrian, explaining how to lock a bike properly or encouraging people to put a sticker on their bike that says, “Is this a bait bike?” He also recommends that people register their bicycle’s serial number with the police — surprisingly few do — so that officers can match a stolen bike with its owner.

Many bike thefts happen at people’s homes, often from the garage, rather than on the streets, hence Officer Friedman’s Twitter post this month: “If anyone is willing to let us camp out in their garage for the evening, contact me at Park Station.”

He promises to sit quietly in the garage, catch a bike thief, then tweet and repeat.