A new program being run by the Portland Police Bureau Bike Theft Task Force is showing early returns.
Yesterday in Old Town a man was arrested after stealing a bicycle that was equipped with a tracking device. The bike is just one in a growing fleet of bait bikes being deployed by the Task Force. It’s all part of the PPB’s ongoing effort to discourage bike theft.
As GPS devices have improved and become more accessible in recent years, the technology is finally becoming more common with law enforcement agencies. As we reported in 2015, the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office arrested thieves who nabbed a bait bike from Reed College. And just last week the Washington County Sheriff’s Office was featured in a KGW-TV news story about their bait bike program.
A Washington County Sheriff told KGW, “We hope the word gets out that if you try to steal a bike… we’re going to catch you. We want the public to know that, bicycle owners to know that, as well as potential bike thieves.” (Note: I’ve been in touch with Washington County Sheriff Pat Garrett to connect his officers with Portland officers for a bit of knowledge-sharing about their respective programs.)
Officer David Sanders leads the PPB Bike Theft Task Force unit. For him, using bait bikes is an important step to keep up with thieves — some of whom are now taking the unusual step of modifying serial numbers to avoid being tracked down.
I spoke with Sanders yesterday about the new bait bike program.
So far PPB have concentrated their efforts in areas with high rates of bike theft (like Old Town) and in places that can be reached quickly by responding officers. They place bikes (which they get from the PPB property room) in the field in places where they have a video feed. When a bike is taken, officers get an alarm. In the past authorities have been reluctant to use bait bikes because of the time it would take to watch the bikes. Sanders has solved that problem. “The bike is on an electronic leash so we don’t have to watch it the entire time,” he said. “The system notifies us when the bike moves.”
— PPB BTTF (@PPBBikeTheft) July 26, 2017
Another key aspect of the PPB’s program is the video feed. This allows officers to prove that the suspect whom they ultimately catch is the person who took the bike. One of the problems with enforcing bike theft is that bikes are passed from hand-to-hand quickly and suspects often lie about how they acquired the property. Officers often make an arrest only to see judges throw out the case due to lack of incontrovertible evidence. (We shared more on the difficulty making bike theft convictions in 2015.)
The PPB also locks the bait bikes, another step that makes it clear the bike isn’t theirs and helps build the case against them.
In yesterday’s case, Sanders said the bait bike took about three hours to get stolen. “A pretty standard amount of time,” he said. The suspect walked past the bike several times to check it out, Sanders shared with me. Then he sat down in front of the bike for about 30 minutes before he actually snipped the cable lock and rode away.
The tracking device in the bike pings the PPB with the location every 40-60 seconds. The goal is to catch the same thief from the video before they pass the bike off to someone else. Once on the hunt for the stolen bike, the technology allows officers to track the bike down to within a specific unit in an apartment building if necessary.
Sanders said he has also started charging bike thieves with the additional crime of Unauthorized Use of a Vehicle (UUV), a felony. This is on top of standard theft charges which only reach felony status when the bike is valued at over $1,000. “Someone might not steal a $1,000 bike but can still get charged with a felony. This is something new that we’re doing and maybe it will be more of a deterrent.”
The goal of the program isn’t just to nab thieves, it’s about sending a larger message to would-be criminals that the next bike they take could be a bait bike.
Sanders didn’t say exactly how much the program has cost. It’s being funded with a $4,000 donation to the Bike Theft Task Force from the Portland Wheelmen Touring Club.