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

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.

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