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Even a 6-year-old can feel Portland’s massive bike theft problem

Posted by on July 29th, 2014 at 12:38 pm

— This post was co-written by Michael Andersen and Jonathan Maus

KATU-TV ended their evening newscast on Friday with a pretty touching anecdote about a girl who knows how much her dad’s bikes mean to him.

As soon as six-year-old Roxy Thompson and her father Rob discovered that someone had stolen “about a half dozen custom road bikes” from his garage, she tried to think of things she could do to help.

“The first thing she said when we saw the garage door open was I could have all her money, all her life savings,” Rob Thompson told KATU.

Then Roxy took it on herself to make a sign that said, “Shame on you bike thieves!!! Your mom would be so disappointed!” She made the dot of each exclamation point into a frown-face and added an annotated picture of a broken heart with an arrow pointing to a picture of her dad.


This young lady personifies the widespread disdain of bike thieves in Portland these days, and the vast scope of the problem itself. We’ve been reporting on bike theft for many years and the problem has only increased. Below are some examples of what’s going wrong and how the problem impacts Portland…

Perfect storm of factors makes bikes a target

Now that such a huge share of Portlanders own bikes — it’s 28 percent of all adults in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties — they’re maybe the single easiest thing for an amateur burglar to steal: easy to locate, highly valuable and easy to quickly transport away. And once a newly stolen bike has been fenced, it’s so hard to prosecute the profiteers that fencing operations sometimes operate more or less openly.

Theft is a barrier to bicycling

It’s probably an even bigger problem for low-income Portlanders. The Community Cycling Center and Cully’s Hacienda community have been working to improve bike parking there after finding that more than half of Latino families in focus groups said they had no safe place to park a bike.

A complicated issue for the Portland Police

The Portland Police are legally and operationally constrained when it comes to dealing with bike theft. Even when they know of alleged chop shops and other suspect operations, it can be difficult to obtain the necessary evidence and search warrants to do anything about them. Here’s a snip from a recent email exchange I had with a PPB officer about an alleged chop shop in St. Johns:

“we can think and ‘know’ the bikes are stolen all day long, but proving it is a different story. If we have no grounds to search the bike, or no consent in most cases, it’s tough to take a bike(s) back.”

Local bike shops are a common target

From the “window pane bandit” to the classic test ride technique, bike shops are a common target as well. The most recent incident happened last month at River City Bicycles, where the thieves cut a water pipe while trying to break in and ended up flooding the shop!

Bike theft detritus litters the city

Nearly every week we are contacted by people that find abandoned/stolen bikes in front of their house or stashed in the bushes in their yard. It happens so often we’ve considered created a “Found Stolen Bike” listing service. In the meantime, if you find a stolen bike, re-read our primer on how to handle it.

Brazen residential heists

Even locked residential garages are no match for Portland bike thieves. Here’s an email we received a few weeks ago from a victim in southeast whose garage was broken into:

“The thief pried open the garage door, but only partway. I have a crowbar jammed into the door, so he was only able to open it to knee-height. Once inside, he sawed through one of the structural supports to which my girlfriend’s bikes were U-bolted, and dragged them out. I have a burglar alarm, but he was able to grab the bikes and go within the 15 minutes it took the police to get there. I have lots of power tools, but he only took the bikes.”

It has even influenced the music scene

And our final item in this bike-theft-in-Portland-is-outta-control roundup is about a band. Yes, bike theft is so pervasive in Portland it has even inspired a band name. Bike Thief is a fledgling group put together by recent Portland transplant Febian Perez. I contacted him to learn more about the name:

“I moved to Portland in June 2012, and almost immediately had my bike stolen. I was fooling around with band names at the same time, with the name ‘Garage Sale’ being the dominating idea in my head. However getting my bike stolen really bummed me out, so I stayed home and watched movies at my new place… one of them being The Bicycle Thief, which is a rad Italian film. I Googled “bike protection bike thief” and “portland bike thieves” and quickly realized how big of a bike theft problem we had in town. I then connected the creative dots and figured that naming my band something so despised could really be a good way to make a memorable name.”

Something needs to be done. Just this week we started kicking around the idea of a “bike theft summit” in Portland. Given how many ways bike theft is impacting our city, it’s time to raise the level of attention to the issue. Maye we should get some advice, or at least a keynote speech, from little Roxy Thompson?

What do you think? What’s the best way to address this problem?

Please support BikePortland.

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

  • El Biciclero July 29, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    Do places like CCC sell discounted U-Locks? Has there ever been a U-Lock drive to get folks to donate quality locks that could be given to those for whom theft is a “barrier” to using a bike? Even though a U-Lock is no guarantee your bike won’t be stolen, they are far better then other kinds of locks, when used correctly. But they are so expensive I would think most lower-income folks who shell out hard-earned cash for even a decent used bike wouldn’t have much left over for a spendy U-Lock.

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    • Melinda Musser July 29, 2014 at 2:24 pm

      We do not sell discounted U-Locks, but we do provide locks to Create a Commuter, Bike Club, and other program participants.

      The biggest barrier for many people is not so much the locks as it is a lack of safe storage for bikes. Some housing developments have rules that forbid people from storing bikes inside apartments or on porches.

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    • Joseph E July 30, 2014 at 7:53 am

      Wal-Mart sells discounted U-locks. A lower-end Kryptonite brand U-lock is under $15.
      (I know, I know, we don’t like Wal-Mart here. But many low-income bike riders are more likely to buy a bike and accessories at a discount store than at a bike shop.)

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  • Spiffy July 29, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    my friend’s 8 yo son recently had his bike stolen from their house in Vancouver… for the second time… they never had any problems until the last couple years… their normally quiet pocket community now has scrappers regularly cruising around looking for anything metal that isn’t bolted down…

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  • Alan 1.0 July 29, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    What registries does PPD check when they have a suspected stolen bike?

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) July 29, 2014 at 3:20 pm

      They check our Stolen Bike Listings and the new Bike Index registry – which, once ours are back up and running are actually pulling from the same database. Last time I checked they were getting a text-only feed of our listings in the computers they have in their patrol cars… But Mr. Bryan Hance could clarify on all this.

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  • John Liu
    John Liu July 29, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    My neighbor’s house was burglarized. Thanks to fingerprints, security cameras, and other investigation, as well as prior incidents, the criminals were positively identified. They live over the river in Washington. The local police there will not serve arrest warrants for Portland; they do not pursue mere property crimes. So these people continue coming to Portland and breaking into houses, until they are apprehended on the south side of the river.

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    • Chris I July 29, 2014 at 3:22 pm

      Good thing we didn’t build that “Crime Train” to Vancouver…

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      • John Liu
        John Liu July 30, 2014 at 9:33 am

        Ha ha. They use cars . . . kind of inconvenient to walk and MAX to Vancouver with bags of stolen jewelry and computers.

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  • Todd Hudson July 29, 2014 at 3:02 pm

    People are stealing locked-and-fastened bikes in locked garages? I guess it’s time to store my bikes in a concrete bunker accessible only by a time-lock vault door.

    Thanks Portland Police Bureau for completely giving up on bike theft!

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    • Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor) July 29, 2014 at 3:25 pm

      “People are stealing locked-and-fastened bikes in locked garages? I guess it’s time to store my bikes in a concrete bunker accessible only by a time-lock vault door. “

      Yes unfortunately they are breaking into storage sheds. You might want to re-read our post featuring a number of ways Portlanders are securing their bikes inside sheds.

      “Thanks Portland Police Bureau for completely giving up on bike theft!”

      That’s not really fair to say in my opinion. Sure, they could absolutely do more to combat this issue, but “completely giving up” isn’t accurate. They spend quite a bit of time trying to check for stolen bikes and trying to re-connect people with stolen bikes.

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      • Todd Hudson July 29, 2014 at 4:18 pm

        Perhaps what I said is an unfair indictment – I’m referring to their lack of proactiveness in *preventing* theft. The place in which I lived prior to Portland had police actively doing bike theft stings (i.e., watching racks and setting out bait bikes….they regularly caught people). I’ve not heard of this here.

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      • Spiffy July 29, 2014 at 4:42 pm

        Todd is saying that if thieves are willing to cut through the structural support of buildings in order to steal bikes then we’ll need at least a foot of concrete for walls with a steel vault time-lock door in order to be absolutely theft-proof…

        the examples in the provided thread are decent, but they’re nothing that can’t be defeated by a hacksaw in a few minutes…

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    • Mike July 30, 2014 at 10:45 am

      Before accusing PPB of giving up completely on stolen bikes, perhaps we could find out more about their resources and how they are allocated to theft and recovery of stolen items? Bikes are not the only high value items that get stolen everyday in Portland – it would be just as easy (and wrong) to claim that Portland Police completely gave up on portable generator theft.

      Jonathan – is it possible to do a story about PPB, specifically how they handle theft and item recovery? How big is that specific unit and how many cases do they receive each day?

      I know that when I caught a couple of thieves last year, they were responsible for over a dozen smash and grabs that evening alone. As a matter of fact, this duo had a couple different storage units they used to hold and sort the goods before fencing them. They would have gotten away with it had I not been so pissed off. Come to find out, PPB were aware of these two and were waiting for them to make a mistake and get caught. Now one is in prison and the other skipped bail and is on the run.

      My point being that PPB was more than happy to go after these thieves, but they needed a little help. Resources are stretched and citizens may need to be a little more proactive when safeguarding their property.

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  • JT July 29, 2014 at 3:14 pm

    My completely unsubstantiated observation is that bike theft is only a segment of what seems like an epidemic of property crime in general here in Portland. There seems to be a substantial community of people here who have realized that so long as your don’t steal a car or break into a residence, there are really no consequences for theft in this town. The PPD seems to place little to no priority on “minor” theft and in the very unlikely circumstances they are apprehended and processed, they know they will be back out on the street by dinner time.

    The brazenness of many of these thefts is really unprecedented in my opinion and threatens to seriously lower the quality of life in Portland, even if these are not violent crimes, which I can only assume is what the PPD is focusing their efforts on.

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    • Justin July 29, 2014 at 4:29 pm

      Dead on. I even had my rain galoshes stolen from my front porch! They weren’t super visible from the street, and required someone literally walking up to my front door to steal them.

      I lived in DC and NYC and never was robbed once. Since moving to PDX I’ve dealt with theft on three separate occasions.

      I’m not sure if it’s the trusting nature of Portlanders, or a complete lack of prosecution from law enforcement, or some combination thereof. But theft in this town is ridiculous.

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  • SE PDX Rider July 29, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    I’ve never had a bike stolen. Knock. Knock.

    But then again, if I’m riding somewhere suspect. I ride a cheap hardtail converted into a commuter that cost 300 bucks in 1989. Maybe I should worry more about my 2 yr. old fixie – a $700 bike, nice Kona frame and sweet wheels, but that bad boy gets locked in a locked cage at work and sleeps with me. U locks yes. Also if I’m uncomfortable I take my bike INSIDE. I’m polite. If the establishment says no – be it grocery store or brew pub – or it’s logistically impossible – I make other plans. Want to dine and keep your bike close? Food cart pods! Nothing better than having baby right next to you when scarfing down fuel.

    Oh also. If you pull a trailer… bring a lock for the trailer!!!

    Its a shame tho. I wish we could just pull up, lean and walk in without fear our bike would be gone. Wouldn’t that be awesome?!?!? Just park and click a button like the cagers do.

    With kids the whole lock up/unlock procedure -imagine your bike falling over while struggling with toddlers and trying to afix a U-lock and a couple of cables- adds just one more reason to not take the bikes.

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    • Justin July 29, 2014 at 4:34 pm

      “adds just one more reason to not take the bikes.” -> yep. And every additional reason just knocks a couple percentage points of bike share…

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  • dan July 29, 2014 at 5:04 pm

    Perhaps we need a Portland version of the Guardian Angels: a group that would get together and check out hot spots for stolen bikes – Springwater Corridor, under the Hawthorne Bridge, etc.

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    • SE PDX Rider July 30, 2014 at 10:47 am

      I’m in. Let me know when the first meeting is and where. Thanks!

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  • bryan July 29, 2014 at 6:37 pm

    Someone is buying stolen bikes and chopped parts. Where does the loot go?

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  • joel July 29, 2014 at 7:47 pm

    i would love to see security cameras on bike corrals. there are some businesses with loner locks (gigantic brewing) and other businesses you may park inside (lucky lab nw). people park their bike in front of our shop and walk to work because they feel it is safer with a retail business where people are looking out for you. …

    Maybe whenever bike shops sell a bike they make a policy of a 2 minute instructional on how to lock it. (and they post warnings in their cable lock section).

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  • Mark July 29, 2014 at 9:14 pm

    It’s certainly frustrating. I work in a bike shop downtown, and we see bikes that are likely stolen quite often.

    Just today, we noticed a shady looking character loitering outside the shop with a time trial bike. He finally came in the store, but left the bike leaning against the wall outside. We invited him to bring the bike inside and park it in our rack. I informed a uniformed Clean and Safe patrol officer that the bike was likely stolen, and he kept an eye on the man while he was in our store to make sure he didn’t cause any trouble.

    The bike was clearly too small for this man. I checked the stolen bike listings on Bikeportland, but could find no evidence that this was indeed a stolen bike. In the end, he walked out of the store with the bike.

    Bike shop employee intuition is not legally admissible evidence in a court of law, so I didn’t really have any options available to me. It makes me sick.

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  • John Liu
    John Liu July 30, 2014 at 6:48 am

    I remember, when I was a kid, bikes were registered. My bikes always had a sticker w/ the registration number. Would a bike registration program help combat theft by making stolen property easier to identify?

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    • Chris I July 30, 2014 at 8:01 am

      Bikes were registered? Where did you grow up?

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      • John Liu
        John Liu July 30, 2014 at 9:13 am

        California and Canada. It was pretty common, I tink these were city or county programs. Even today, you’ll see olders road bikes (’70s, ’80s) from Calfornia with those blue registration stickers.

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        • Pete July 30, 2014 at 9:53 am

          San Jose, CA just did away with their mandatory licensing program just a few years ago. They have a bike-friendly city council who discovered the long-forgotten rule was still on the books (and costing them $). These programs were indeed widespread and intended to assist the police in returning recovered bikes to their owners, unlike the armchair arguments we see today saying they’re a way to gain revenue for ‘fair’ street use.

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  • David Feldman July 30, 2014 at 8:25 am

    I have a bike repair business. I work on a lot of mid to high-end road bikes and make a habit of writing bike serial numbers on repair tickets. Custom builders, will you PLEASE stamp legible serial numbers into your frames somewhere! The law doesn’t recognize “bike business lifer intuition” but I have returned a few stolen bikes to their owners that way over the years.

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  • Pete July 30, 2014 at 8:34 am

    While some people have their bikes stolen from inside locked garages or have thieves take angle grinders to their u-locks, I believe we may be overstating the risk here. Yes, bike theft is all too common, but my anecdotal evidence as a dude who works in a bike shop, is that the vast majority of people that I’ve dealt with who have had a bike stolen either had a lock that was woefully insufficient (dear bike industry, STOP PRODUCING CABLE LOCKS! you’re confusing people), or they were locked to something insecure like a chain link fence or a wooden deck railing, or they were not locked at all (in the back yard or the front porch, out front of the coffee shop, etc). Not to blame the victim in these situations, but a little savvy goes a long way. My advice to consumers is to buy a good u-lock ($40-$60 does the trick), make sure that the inanimate object that you’re locking to is as strong as your lock, store your bike inside if possible, and to avoid extended lock-ups in obvious high-theft situations (downtown on a dark street overnight, for example). Following these guidelines will keep most people’s bikes safe and in their own possession.

    I think we do ourselves a disservice by focussing too heavily on the exceptional bike theft cases, as it discourages new riders from investing in a bike at all if they feel they are powerless against monstrous bike thieves, all of whom are willing and able to take out windows and cut through structural supports to get at their ride. Most bike thefts seem to be crimes of convenience that can be avoided or deterred with a little extra effort by the rider.

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  • Tom July 30, 2014 at 12:40 pm

    Bait bikes could be very effective if you have enough of them. Then hand out cards that people can attached to their bikes that say “are you sure this is not a bait bike” (then put some on the bait bikes as well). Start converting personal bikes to bait bikes, starting with volunteers who ride and park everywhere!. This solves the problem of having to keep moving the bait bikes around.

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  • Zaphod July 30, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    GPS chips that can be attached to belongings are showing up on kickstarter, etc. I’ll be getting those installed when they’re readily available.

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