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Bike theft ‘chop shop’ allegations tricky territory for Portland Police

Posted by on October 23rd, 2013 at 12:55 pm

Stolen bikes at drug bust in Old Town-6

PPB cleaning up a stolen bike ring in
Old Town back in July.
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Among the many disturbing bike theft trends I hear about these days are the growing number of allegations about “chop shops” or organized bike theft rings. I’ve been flagging reader emails about these for several months now. Below are a few examples of what I’ve heard just since this past July…

Reader Carmen R.:

I work off Front Ave over by the Fremont Bridge.

For some time now we have been documenting what we believe to be a bike theft ring. A very amateur video has been taken (not much clarity) and calls have been made to the police. The police show up 20 or so minutes or so later, walk around the premises we’ve identified and pretty much just drive away. This is very disheartening to me as I commute daily and have 3 bikes stolen over the years.

What happens is a guy rides up across the street handling another bike, rides over to the storage and/or freight containers across the street. Said bike disappears inside. They have this area very secure and boarded up. Only once do we feel we saw an exchange go down with a pick-up retrieving some bikes from the vicinity. We have not been quick enough to photograph this and it would seem pretty obvious if we pursued them out right.

Reader Cory M.:

Hey I just found out there is a guy camping at 98th and SE Flavel who is suspected of stealing bikes and running a chop shop. He has a camp that has white, picket fence around it and a very large tarp, where hundreds of stolen bikes are suspected to be underneath. I was warned not to approach him, because he’s a crazy meth head (of course). Police have visited him but haven’t busted him. Please call police non-emergency line: 503-823-3333 and tip them about this guy. Maybe we can get our STOLEN bikes back!

The camp is along Johnson Creek, under the I-205 overpass at Flavel… I got the tip from a homeless individual I work with… She lives in the camp and noticed bikes coming and going, I described my recently stolen bike and she said he just got a bunch of “new” bikes this week.

Reader Mark K.:

Check out the homeless camp under SE Grand / MLK on SE Division Place. I drive by there at least twice a day going to and coming from work. Each morning, they have between two and ten new bicycles, and by evening, they are pretty much stripped. This morning, they had several mountain bikes and one of the double tall Chunkathlon type bikes. In addition to bikes, they have been showing up with wheelbarrows, lawnmowers, hand trucks, etc. My former neighbors recovered some of their stolen stuff there. If you ask the tweaked gal sitting cross-legged which stuff is stolen, she’ll point it out.

Don’t expect PPB to care or do anything.

Reader Shawn B.:

Here in Central Eastside there are multiple bike stripping areas. Homeless people steal bikes, bring them to CEID and strip them down, then sell the parts. You can watch them while they work.

I’ve seen people in homeless encampments with rows of bikes in different states of disassembly. I’ve also seen them with large sets of tools removing seats, wheels, etc. They tend to be under overpasses, like where Salmon dead ends into the river, on SE Division under the 99 overpass, and under the Morrison Bridge off of SE Water Ave. I’ve also seen parked bikes at these encampments worth well over $1000 (cyclocross, full suspension mountain bikes, road bikes, etc.).

Reader Bryan H.:

Had a bike stolen recently? I ran into this bike chop shop on pine and 11th. I’ll try and get some photos of the dozens of bikes I saw the guy spraypainting when I checked it out.

With all these allegations, I called the Portland Police Bureau to ask them how best to handle the situation. I ended up talking with Sgt. Brian Hughes, the supervisor of the Neighborhood Response Team (NRT) for Downtown/SW Precinct.

“Just because they’re living outside and have a lot of bikes, doesn’t mean they’re bike thieves. They’re entitled to work on a bike just as much as anyone anywhere else.”
— Sgt. Brian Hughes, Portland Police Bureau

When it comes to bike theft, Sgt. Hughes has seen just about everything, from the sophisticated, professional thief who steals high-end bikes and flips them on Craigslist to the “meth addict rolling on Water Ave with a bike slung over their shoulder.”

When I told him about these allegations, he said, “Portland is very welcoming to the homeless. But when it becomes unwelcome it’s the Neighborhood Response Teams that are the first ones to hear about it.” “When I go out to [homeless] camps,” he continued, “I notice a lot of bikes… And there are bike parts everywhere.”

But the issue is more complicated than you might think. “Just because they’re living outside and have a lot of bikes,” Sgt. Hughes said, “doesn’t mean they’re bike thieves. They’re entitled to work on a bike just as much as anyone anywhere else.”

If an officer has reason to believe there are stolen bikes at a homeless camp, they can perform a search and run the serial numbers to see if anything comes back stolen. Every piece of stolen property reported to the PPB is entered into the Law Enforcement Data System, or LEDS. That database also cross-references the National Crime Information Center database. Sgt. Hughes visited a homeless camp recently and ran all the bike serial numbers through LEDS and they all came back clean.

When a bike’s serial number comes back clean, there’s very little an officer can do. Unless you can prove it’s your bike by some other descriptive means, you’re unlikely to get it back. If parts have been swapped out it can be extremely difficult to track down the owner, says Sgt. Hughes.

Even though the PPB treads very lightly in how they approach this issue (as they should), Sgt. Hughes says if they have reason to suspect a chop shop operation is happening, they will investigate. As a general rule, he explained, when police “clean up” illegal camps they run the serial numbers on all the bikes (and other property) they find. “But at the same time,” he added, “While we’re out there we’ll be respecting people’s rights.”

When it comes to organized bike theft rings, Sgt. Hughes said in his experience, those type of thieves target higher-end bikes. He once worked an investigation where high-end bikes were being stolen in Portland and sold via Craigslist in Eugene. In his experience, if a high-end bike gets nabbed in Portland, it’s not likely to see the light of day. Sgt. Hughes feels that’s in part due to the high level of awareness for stolen bikes in Portland.

Apparently, local thieves know about this community’s legendary reputation for helping each other track down stolen bikes. Sgt. Hughes said he once talked to homeless man about bike theft and the man told him he’d already gone online and checked to see if any of the serial numbers came up. As to why many of these camps are full of bikes, Sgt. Hughes says he often hears residents that people feel sorry for them and drop off old bikes as donations.

For the PPB, this issue comes down to good old-fashioned police work and building relationships out in the community. “There are people that I and other officers know who steal bikes. We know where they live and every time we see them on the streets we’re going to have a conversation because of that history.” As for the numerous allegations about the camps, Sgt. Hughes says they have no specific plans to address it, but they’ll “continue to monitor the situation.”

As for what the public can do. There are three basic things you need to remember: If you see what you suspect is a chop shop operation, call the Neighborhood Unit of Central Precinct at (503) 823-0097; if your bike is in the process of being stolen, call 911; if it has already been stolen, call the non-emergency line at (503) 823-3333, file a report with the PPB’s Citizen Online Reporting tool, and of course list it on our Stolen Bike Listings.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

  • JL October 23, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    Alot of the bikes that are suspected to be stolen have legit frames but the parts are all Stolen. They ditch the stolen frames and then put together miss matched parts bikes.

    That is what can be frustrating, your cranks and shifters can be right in front of you on a frame with a good serial number

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  • Scott October 23, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    I bet if you added up all of the bikes on the stolen bike page, you would maybe have enough to fill one tarp and here we have what sounds to be multiple caches of stolen bikes.

    By Occam’s razor we can infer that there are far more people with skewed, racist, and classicist perceptions than there are bike thieves.

    Do you know there are piles of discarded bikes all over the city? I bet the people who need the parts off of them do. Scrappers can’t recycle much of the metal from bicycles due to processes like chroming and other metal treatments used on frames and wheels so that leave a lot discarded bikes to be picked over for parts.

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    • davemess October 23, 2013 at 1:17 pm

      Yes because clearly all the bike stolen in the city are listed on bikeportland……..

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      • Scott October 23, 2013 at 2:13 pm

        Check PPB then. See if you can make the math work. I don’t think it does. I think the percentage of bad apples living on the streets is the same as those living in homes and when you are a good person living on the streets, you find a legal way to get what you need.

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        • Alex October 24, 2013 at 4:06 pm

          I believe you need a serial number to report it there or it does no good. Even the PPB numbers could be waaaaayyyy off. How many people have their serials recorded?

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      • kathy j December 27, 2013 at 7:33 pm

        but understanding the activity described as a dozen or more new bikes every day are torn down by nightfall, yes? then the next days new ones…HAVE NOT BEEN REPORTED YET- their frames/sections with serial numbers are fairly easy to swap…and the smokin-hot little bike runners are already up and gone with the evidenciary parts. ADDITIONALLY THE POLICE WOULD DO WELL TO MAINTAIN A DATABASE OF THE (unstolen) SERIAL NUMBERS THEY VIEW. Chances are high that it is with merely a glance through the hot sheet they clear a bikes’ serial number, never to realize that the number is about to be on tomorrows hot sheet.

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    • dan October 23, 2013 at 1:21 pm

      I think you mean “classist.” “Classicists” support the study of the classics.

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  • Aaronf October 23, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    Oh my. Referring to persons-who-steal-bicycles as “thieves” unfairly dehumanizes them by reducing them to their occupation. Nouns hurt. 🙁

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    • Jeff October 23, 2013 at 8:16 pm

      I hope you are joking. Go home language cop. Everyone here understands that person who steals a bike IS a thief and lots more too (lover, addict, shopper, whatever). Stop assuming everyone is so singly minded. I’m offended you’d make that assumption.

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      • Aaronf October 23, 2013 at 9:24 pm

        I’m being opaque above. I’ll try to be more transparent for you, and anyone else who wasn’t clear about the point I was making.

        JMaus is reactivating his “Language Matters” campaign. The main places where language appears to matter are in labeling groups (especially cyclists) and when using passive/active language to describe events.

        When it comes to labeling, Local Thieves Sgt. Hughes is a grammar stud: “There are people that I and other officers know who steal bikes.” The editor whose crusade is in part to make us aware of labeling calls them Local thieves.

        So, my point is that either someone is overly sensitive about their own “group” (cyclists) or they aren’t being thoughtful of other group (thieves, in this case). Do unto others… right?

        The only nuance I can think of to mess up my comparison would be if thieves deserve to be labeled, because we don’t like them, or they’re subhuman or something.

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  • Dave J. October 23, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    I have to admit I wonder why one of the local news stations doesn’t do some big expose on bike thefts–set up some bait bikes with multiple cameras trained on them, perhaps figure out how to hide a chip in the frame that’ll let them track the bikes via GPS…would make for compelling TV, not to mention interesting to find out where the bikes would wind up.

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    • Chris I October 23, 2013 at 3:06 pm

      Because most of us aren’t stupid enough to watch the local news. They get more viewership by running stories about killer storms and wasteful government services.

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  • Dave October 23, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    A big problem is that on a bicycle unlike a car, only one component usually has a serial number. Bikes have no equivalent to the engine block number on a motor vehicle.

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    • Scott October 23, 2013 at 5:27 pm

      Yeah. Because car theft has been totally curbed. Nope. No more car theft.

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      • Sho October 23, 2013 at 8:56 pm

        I think you completely missed Dave’s point.

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  • Jolly Dodger October 23, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    Or insurance value of enough worth to put a monthly dividend against loss of property, like say, a car. *cars don’t vanish as quickly, and are a lot harder for most average level mechanical individuals to ‘strip’. Or paint, or steal for that matter…if you have ignition punch tools why would you waste your time stealing a vehicle you can’t leave the state in less than a day for? This is why Renter’s or Homeowner’s insurance provides against this loss from a residential theft, and a person’s auto insurance often has inclusions for property taken from your auto (i.e.-a bike on the roof rack). Because, ultimately, by providing this loss coverage to it’s customers, the big insurance providers stay in business. And have you noticed how many dang commercials for auto insurance companies there are now-a-days? Or just how many there are competing? And not a single one giving bikes even a side long niche notice.

    There are only really two ways to make bikes less appealing to thieves.

    1.) de-base the current money/market system as a whole to make human worth more valuable than currency.
    2.) make all bikes free.

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  • BURR October 23, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    As far as I can tell, you might not fare much better if your car is stolen. You can easily buy a wrecked vehicle with a salvage title and then build it up again with stolen parts. I’ve had a tailgate stolen from my pickup parked in front of my house, and there are a large number of auto chop shops out east of the airport, where all the large auto insurance salvage and tow yards are. On more than one ocassion I’ve seen stripped car carcasses from these chop shops pushed back out into the street for the city to pick up as ‘abandoned’ vehicles, and the cops just don’t seem to care.

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  • MC October 23, 2013 at 4:52 pm

    I had an excellent experience recently with Portland Police after my bike was stolen. The thief posted it on Craigslist, and I called the North Precinct to ask if they would accompany me to meet him. They asked if I had the serial number, when I told them I did, they said “absolutely” and five officers met me to help apprehend the thief. In my limited experience, when you provide Portland Police with actionable information, they’re excited to help.

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  • Todd Hudson October 23, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    At one of the aforementioned homeless camps, I saw a mid-level brand mountain bike rattle-canned with grey primer. Whoever did the paint job didn’t even bother to remove the wheels or cranks. That’s clearly an amateur attempt to disguise a bicycle. Why the disguise?

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    • Mike October 23, 2013 at 8:40 pm

      I have had customers buy bikes from me and go home to do the same thing. They still have a quality bike that is now almost worthless to the average bike thief.

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  • Bill October 23, 2013 at 7:57 pm

    The question that begs to be asked in this report and others on stolen bikes is “Who is buying them?” Shouldn’t equal efforts be made to apprehend bike thieves AND diminish the market for their stolen bikes?

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  • ws October 23, 2013 at 8:53 pm

    Bicyles are the currency of the street (link below, page 2). I think it’s extremely naive to think otherwise. Sure, some might be working on their bikes, but really, how often do we all do this in a given year?

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    • BobBobberson October 24, 2013 at 6:32 am

      Interesting. I like that article. Bikes as currency. Here are some things that make a currency:

      1. Acceptability – Can be used to trade for goods and services
      2. Durability – It should last a long time
      3. Portability – Easy to carry around
      4. Scarcity – Scarce enough to be valuable, not common such as sand or pebbles on a beach
      5. Divisibility – Can be divided into small units

      6. Cognizability – money should be easy to recognize
      7. Malleability – can be made into new money
      8. Uniformity

      1,2,3 & 5 are good or fair
      #4 is an interesting, will more bikers lead to less bike theft as the relative value would decline with larger supply?
      6 is obvious,
      7 is sort of there, with parts+scrap metal value
      #8 is obviously not the case, but it actually helps #3 as you can trade 2 lower-priced bikes for 1 higher-priced bike.

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  • Sho October 23, 2013 at 8:54 pm

    To Mark K.:
    If you would take notice of the homeless camp at that location along SE Div and MLK the police clear it out and arrest the majority of people along with confiscating many of their (likely illegal or illegally attained) belongings about every 2 weeks. With you going by there that frequently you should know this as I travel past there frequently as well and it is very apparent when overnight the camp goes from about 50 people to a clean sidwalk. The problem is they keep coming back and I have noticed people (not homeless) supporting their activities on a regular basis.

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    • annefi October 24, 2013 at 7:57 am

      How are people (not homeless) supporting the activities of the campers? Bringing food? Supplies? Just curious. The camp under McLaughlin/99 at Division is where considerable structural damage was caused to the overpass supports a few weeks back when campers left a fire unattended.

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      • Sho October 24, 2013 at 6:45 pm

        That would be correct, they are multiple people I see bring them food and supplies in which makes them want to stay there. There are also the occasional who walk by to make a transaction of something (could be legal or illegal don’t know). This is an issue especially where there are a huge amount of resources they can go within this city (or just work towards getting some income). Not sure what the pertinence of your fire comment was since I am happy to see the police clear them out due to issues such as that. However on that note with the bridges structural system used you are looking a very large and high temperature fire for burning in excess of 2 hours before before it would cause significant structural damage, so I know you are exaggerating there which hurts your credibility. If any fire they created caused that much structural damage as you let on the bridge would definitely not be in operation. I know there was a fire and the burn marks are still there on the sidewalk (fyi the sidewalk is not connected to the structure so if the sidewalk were to fail that really doesn’t do anything but make an uncomfortable sleeping surface for them and cause the city a good chunk of taxes you are probably paying).

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  • Ted Chan October 24, 2013 at 8:28 am

    These seem like they could be cracked pretty easily with a few GPS chips embedded inside tubes…you have to figure it’s 20% of the thieves causing 80% of the stolen bikes.

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  • SE October 24, 2013 at 8:46 am

    I don’t know for sure and so am not making the accusation, BUT …in the rear of a flea market near Gresham there is a bike seller who has piles of frames that they reconfig with old components. And he sells them very cheap.
    I looked at a Fuji Newest 1.0 in there (2010 model, but new condition) that he wanted waay under market value for.

    There are lawn mowers and power tools in his inventory too. Sure looks suspicious since he has some sketchy looking guys hanging around there .
    Another flea market customer told me he had spotted a stolen bike there and reported to store management who didn’t seem to care.
    Sure wish local police would check it out.

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  • tnash October 24, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    Instead of lamenting the problem, we should use it to our advantage and encourage a “homeless” bike coop — roll in, get a tune-up and new tires while you wait for $20, or buy a “used” $600 bike for $200…I mean, we’re already paying the more general “tax” of having our bikes stolen all over the place. I’ll bet if we did that, Portland would find a way to solve the problem very quickly. 😛

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  • RWL1776 October 25, 2013 at 3:57 pm

    Corey M: you mean this homeless camp? From October 4th:
    “PORTLAND — Police and ODOT crews worked in concert Thursday to remove nearly 20 tons of garbage and the residents of a homeless camp near Southeast 92nd and Flavel.

    There was so much trash tossed into adjacent Johnson Creek that the mess interfered with fish going upstream to spawn. The squatters had torn down trees that aided the restoration of the stream.

    ODOT spokesman Don Hamilton told KGW that a chamber pot was routinely dumped into Johnson Creek.

    The camp also was adjacent to the popular Springwater Corridor bicycling and walking path.

    Crews will finish the cleanup Monday, then begin habitat restoration destroyed by the campers.”

    See the KGW story here.

    So, lets allow another homeless camp, just like this one, in the Pearl District, where lots of fresh bikes are ready to be stolen! This would be right down the street from where Carmen R. describes bikes disappearing. I’d like to see this operation, I work right by the Fremont Bridge too. I’m looking at it as I type……

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  • Dmitriy Zasyatkin October 26, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    I recommend everyone take Aikido, the non-violent martial arts, so that when you see a bike theft, you can easily subdue the thief until the police can arrive, because if you call 911 they will most likely ask you 40 questions before dispatching an officer, and at that point, your bike will definitely be gone.

    Oregon Citizen’s Arrest Laws:

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  • kathy j December 27, 2013 at 7:23 pm

    IS EVERYONE REALLY MISSING THE OBVIOUS? >chop shop- (n.) 1. a discreetly guarded location in which stolen vehicles are stripped down in order to swap parts with other vehicles of the same build. Great legnths are gone to in order “sanitize” the hot property, making it difficult to identify specific deta ils, as they are altered. removal of the vins, falsified titles/registrations even “loan” or payment contracts to legitimize and conceal the thefts…large scale structured crimes such as these often have one or another FRONT business where they can sell off merchandise. And undoubtedly, with so many individual criminals working in concert- you might suppose they gain access to either IDENTICAL vehicles (bikes, cars, lawn mowers, power tools, heavy equipment) switching the vin plates, Serial number-stamped parts are switched, and then one goes back to the owner, safe, sound- and presumed legit. employees @ key unrelated businesses may well be in their pockets to fascilitate the coverups. I do not live in Portland…But I know a long list of people here in tri-cities washington who have been marked and repeatedly raked over the coals–myself included…and a few of us are just finally having time to pour over perplexities and discern their MO. Not just bikes. or cars. but anything that can be bought, sold, worn or hauled down the street day or night a block or two in the middle of peak traffic.

    One of these people and I work second hand, and online sites, craigslist, e-bay, pawn shops etc. We recently discovered at least a dozen or more craigslist ads for things…still in her house- sometimes screened off with a sheet or curtain, but most of them? either PLENTY of detail in the back/foreground came through to verify exactly where the pictures were taken!!. be thankful it is mostly your bikes and lawn mowers…or maybe something you own simply turned up rather worn out…or suddenly not working when almost new? You ought to think in broader terms.

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