There’s a strong feeling among many in the community that the Portland Police Bureau simply doesn’t care about bike theft. I hear this sentiment all the time, and I agree that the bureau needs to step up and make this growing problem a higher priority.
In the meantime however, it’s good to know there are some PPB officers going out of their way to battle bike thieves. Officer David Sanders is one of them; but unfortunately he’s doing it inside a bureau that has yet to join him in the fight.
I met Sanders last week at his headquarters office in Old Town.
As he led me into a conference table, I noticed about 8-10 bikes strewn about. They were just the latest batch that Sanders and his partners have taken off the streets and now hope to connect with their owners. Sanders is one of six members of the the downtown Bicycle Patrol Unit (four of which are paid for by Portland Patrol Inc., a private security company that contracts with the PPB), whose job is to keep the peace on the streets. The bulk of his day is responding to low-level disputes and establishing relationships with downtown residents and business owners.
But whenever he can find a few extra minutes, his attention turns to bike theft.
Sanders and his partners cover a swath of downtown that sees more bike theft than anywhere else in the city. Its boundaries include: Portland State University to Union Station and SW 10th the the river.
As we chatted, he pulled out a thick folder with “bike theft” on the label. Inside were various bits of research and stories he’d printed up from the web, information on suspects, and statistics and maps showing the extent of the problem.
“There’s no one [in the bureau] dedicated to bike theft. It would be nice if the city said, ‘This is a priority for us.'”
— Officer David Sanders, Portland Police Bureau
According to stats Sanders requested from the Portland Police Data System (PPDS), there have been 887 bikes stolen in the central core area (downtown Portland and the lower eastside) in the past 20 months. Based on the bureau’s estimated value, those stolen bikes represent a total of $748,456 in lost property.
To Sanders, this dollar amount validates his hunch that bike theft is a serious issue. When I asked if he felt it deserved more attention from the bureau and City Hall, Sanders said, “Absolutely,” without hesitation. In three and-a-half years on his current beat, Sanders has noticed a definite uptick. Unfortunately, despite his interest and eagerness in tackling the problem, Sanders can only do so much because bike theft is not a significant part of his official job description.
“There’s no one [in the bureau] dedicated to bike theft,” he shared, “It would be nice if the city said, ‘This is a priority for us.'”
Sanders said “person crimes” are where most of the bureau’s resources are focused; but he also pointed out that they do take auto theft seriously, so perhaps the consequences for bike theft in the criminal code should be more severe.
A lack of internal support, however, has not stopped Sanders. In addition to studying the crime by crunching numbers and bike theft hot spot maps, he’s also made personal visits to local bike shops to warn them about specific known thieves.
On October 10th, Sanders issued a Central Precinct Bulletin with the mugshots and names of 11 bike theft subjects. He then printed it out and shared it with several downtown bike shops. He wants shop employees to know these faces because many of them are repeat offenders who specialize in taking bikes. Sanders told me about one person he arrested who had “About 10 u-lock keys on a key-ring.”
Many of the bikes Sanders recovers come from what he referred to as “chop shops” that operate in known encampments around the city. He mentioned two specific locations where he’s tracked down stolen bikes: NW 19th and Savier and under the I-5 freeway at SE Water and Stark. (For more on how the PPB handles chop shops, see our story from last year.)
Sanders also wants to start training other officers to get them up to speed on bicycles. A big problem, he explained, is that most officers — when they arrest someone and find bicycles in their possession — have no idea how to distinguish between a $5,000 racing bike and a $50 beater bike.
Raising the priority of this crime within the PPB culture also means that more officers must start seeing bicycles as vital transportation vehicles that have not just a similar (if not greater) street value as many used cars, but are also just as important to their owners.
One thing Sanders hasn’t pursued much is a bait-bike program where a decoy bike is put out and monitored by officers in hopes that a thief tries to take it. “No time,” replied Sanders when I asked about this, “I’m doing all of this stuff on-the-side as it is.”
If Sanders ran the bureau, he’d love to see a central investigator to coordinate bike theft efforts and two to three officers assigned to the project. “That would be a huge win for the city,” he said.
— This is part of our ongoing reporting on bike theft. Read past coverage here.