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5 years after launch, PPB Bike Theft Task Force leader says problem remains ‘very bad’


Last month members of the Task Force joined with Milwaukie PD for a free bike registration event on the Springwater Corridor.
(Photos: Portland Police)

Bike thieves do not care about the pandemic. In fact, it’s probably encouraging them to steal more.

According to the Portland Police Bureau Bike Theft Task Force, bike theft in March was up 25% compared to last year. Task Force leader Officer Dave Sanders says it’s “very bad” out there right now.

The BTTF was launched five years ago this week. We haven’t reduced bike theft as much as we’d hoped, but the task force itself remains strong and is doing excellent work. While Portland is a leader in bike theft with about 10,000 bikes stolen each year (over one per hour), we are also a leader in recoveries. According to PPB data, they’ve recovered 30% more bikes so far this year than last. That’s $100,000 worth of stolen bikes back in the hands of their owners. The key? Registration.

“We could solve bike theft overnight if everyone would take a few minutes today to walk out to their garage and register their bikes,” Ofcr. Sanders shared with me this week.

Sanders is on the frontlines of the bike theft epidemic. As he scours the city looking for stolen bikes, he’s also been a victim himself. It happened back in January and it just happened again last week.

“We could solve bike theft overnight if everyone would take a few minutes today to walk out to their garage and register their bikes.”
— Dave Sanders, PPB officer

Ofcr. Dave Sanders and Milwaukie PD Ofcr. Mark Inman on the Springwater Corridor last month.

Ofcr. Sanders says on March 27th he recovered a stolen bike in the Central Eastside. He placed the bike on the rack of his marked patrol car. Then on his way back to his office in Old Town he stopped under the Burnside Bridge to deal with another issue. When he came back to his car, the bike was gone. “They took it while I had my back turned!!” Sanders shared.

On Monday, someone waltzed into the headquarters of Chris King Precision Components in northwest Portland and stole a one-of-a-kind custom bike.

People who steal bikes in Portland are infamous for their brazen action. And virus-related protocols might be fueling the fire. On March 26th the Multnomah County District Attorney announced a policy to reduce arrests in order to prevent COVID-19 spread inside jail. They’ve advised law enforcement officers to hand out citations instead of arrests, “for all non-person, non-domestic violence cases when the law enforcement officer has a positive identification of the individual.”

Sanders thinks word of this policy has spread among thieves, many of whom feel like it would be just a minor inconvenience if they got caught.

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The Task Force has registered hundreds of bikes at Sunday Parkways and other events.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

Beyond the new policy, there aren’t as many eyes-on-the-street as usual because so many people are staying indoors. Sanders thinks a lot of people who used to ride to work everyday and have left their bikes in outdoor sheds, storage rooms, or basements, might have an unpleasant surprise when they start biking again. “I fear once everyone gets the OK to resume activity, we’ll see a rash of theft reports come in because cyclists are going to go to the basement to get their bike and realize it was stolen,” Sanders says.

The majority of recent thefts are burglaries. Sanders strongly advises everyone to lock their bikes while in storage with a heavy-duty u-lock (no cable locks!). It’s also a perfect time to register your bike.

Sanders is optimistic that we can control bike theft in Portland. “The plan is simple: bike registration,” he says.

Here’s more from Sanders:

“Really that’s it. All of the other pieces will fall into place once we get a handle on bike registration. Bike thieves get away with it because they know the owner hasn’t recorded what they have. It’s low risk, high reward. Universal bike registration turns that equation on its head. It’s quick, easy, free, and it works. Statistically in Portland, registration doubles your chances of getting your bike back. We estimate there’s a 1 in 5 chance of recovery if your bike is registered. Wouldn’t you buy a raffle ticket with those odds?”

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With herd registration, we could build an immunity to bike theft.

Registration isn’t managed by the PPB, but they use a publicly available tool called Project 529 every day to connect stolen bikes to individual thieves and to re-unite bikes with their owners. Another free registration tool, Bike Index, is run by a nonprofit.

Sanders is working toward a goal of a ten-fold increase in registrations in Portland by 2022. Currently there are about 10,000 bikes registered locally and he wants to see that number swell to 100,000 in two years. In early March Sanders and his partners teamed up with Milwaukie Police Department officers for a free bike registration drive on the Springwater Corridor.

In addition to registering bikes, the Bike Theft Task Force is staying busy with: Daily follow-ups on bike theft cases, running a bait bike program, training law enforcement officers region-wide on how to spot stolen bikes, setting up stings to intercept online purchases, and so on.

“But we can’t simply arrest our way out of this problem,” Sanders says. “We need the community’s help. Is your bike registered? Maybe this would be a good use of the next five minutes. Don’t put it off or it may be too late.”

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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