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Police budget cuts cripple bike theft response unit

Posted by on September 25th, 2020 at 12:11 pm

The Bike Theft Task Force booth at a Sunday Parkways event in July 2016.
(Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

The leader of the Portland Police Police Bureau’s Bike Theft Task Force (BTTF) says the unit has lost its only source of funding and will have to significantly scale back its work for the foreseeable future.

Officers with the task force had been doing regular bike registration events in partnership with Portland Parks rangers over the past few months. Last week Officer Dave Sanders took to the BTTF Twitter account to make the news public: “We are sorry to have to cancel this and other planned events,” he wrote. “Funding for our bike theft program is currently being suspended. Though the police bureau sees the value of these community efforts, we are facing larger budget cuts within our bureau that prevent us from continuing.”

The BTTF was launched in 2015. It was the result of a concerted effort by BikePortland and others to raise awareness of the issue that culminated with the first-ever Bike Theft Summit in December 2014.

Officer Sanders is based out of Central Precinct and works in the bureau’s Neighborhood Response Team (NRT) program. He’s part of a four member unit partly subsidized by Portland Patrol Inc., a private security contractor for Downtown Portland Clean & Safe.

Officer Dave Sanders is the leader of the Bike Theft Task Force.

Sanders and his team are on the front lines of several bike theft hot spots and they’ve helped recovered hundreds of bikes over the years. In addition to investigating bike theft cases and getting bikes back, the BTTF has established working relationships with community groups and bike shops, conducted bike theft trainings for officers across the region, and hosted many lock giveaway and registration events. The BTTF is also active online. Sanders has hosted a Q & A in the BikePortland Forums and regularly responds to requests for help through the BTTF Twitter account.

Other steps the BTTF has taken to fight bike theft include setting out bait bikes and setting up stings to intercept online sales of stolen bikes.

Between January 1st and August 31st of this year, the BTTF recovered 192 bikes. In 2018 the BTTF confiscated 277 bikes and returned 223 (74%) of them to their rightful owners.

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Year to date comparison of reported bike theft cases.
(Source: Portland Police Bureau)

Sanders estimates there are about 10,000 bicycles stolen in Portland ever year (only about 1 in 4 get reported). He believes the best way to combat this epidemic — which he claims has gotten far worse during the pandemic — is for every bicycle to be registered with a service like Project 529 (which the bureau relies on heavily) or Bike Index. Sanders says you’re twice as likely to get your bike back if it’s registered. The goal of the BTTF was to register 100,000 bikes by 2022 — 10 times the amount currently on file.

Despite the success of the BTTF, it has never received dedicated funding from the Portland Police Bureau beyond limited officer staff time. That changed in 2018 when Sanders applied for — and won — an internal grant for $180,000 to do community outreach and boost bicycle registration. The grant money initially came into the bureau in 2017 through the federal Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) Program. Sanders earned a share of that money with his proposal for a three-year Bicycle Outreach Program that centered on registration drives, community education efforts, and other efforts to get a handle on thefts.

Sometime earlier this month Ofcr. Sanders was told that money would no longer be available. He believes the funds were shifted to other bureau priorities and that the move was a result of an overall drain on the police budget and to recoup costs from protest response efforts.

PPB officials haven’t responded to requests for comment about this decision.

The PPB budget has been in major flux all summer and the NRT program is a victim of cuts throughout the bureau. The primary source of funding for the PPB’s NRT program is General Fund discretionary resources which the current city budget says are, “subject to the volatility of the City’s General Fund.”

Back in June, the police budget was reduced by $15.3 million — from $244.6 million to $229.3 million — for the 2021 fiscal year (which runs from July through June). The bulk of these cuts were the result of public and political pressure to reduce police spending and redirect it to other public services.

Also in June, The Oregonian reported the bureau is required to make another $3.3 million in cuts as part of a citywide response to coronavirus impact. “It’s not yet clear where those reductions will be,” they wrote.

According to KATU, the police budget is also under strain from a huge spike in overtime related to the protests. The PPB has also spent over $70,000 on weapons like tear gas and pepper spray as well as new protest-related equipment. Another $40,000 was spent on fencing around Chapman and Lownsdale squares that was taken down after just a few days.

“I would love for someone else to step up in the community to solve this problem.”
— Dave Sanders, PPB officer

Sanders says the BTTF isn’t being dissolved and that he and other members of the Central Precinct bike unit will still be able to do bike theft work during down-time; but he doesn’t expect that to happen much given their intense workload. In addition to having his funding rescinded, two of the six bike unit positions have been cut.

While he’s disappointed to lose so much of the progress the BTTF has made in the past five years, Sanders says, “I don’t take it personally. The bureau acknowledges that this was a vital program and valuable services provided to the community. I hope that the city as a whole again prioritizes this again in the future. I want people to know we still care about bike theft and are still active in getting bikes back as we can. We just won’t be able to be as responsive to the community’s needs.”

When Sanders started working on bike theft issues in 2013 he says he did it because he saw a huge need and no one else was stepping up to do anything about it.

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With the role of police in our communities under intense scrutiny, many people wonder why bike theft recovery and prevention work is being done by armed officers at all. “I would love for someone else to step up in the community to solve this problem,” Sanders shared with me recently.

Sanders has had the help of a few community partners over the years. He tried for months in 2018 to get a paid position established at the Portland Bureau of Transportation to take over many aspects of the work. PBOT wasn’t able to justify the position in their budget, but the agency has played a big role in the BTTF since its inception. They partner on marketing and promotional campaigns and PBOT has purchased 100s of u-locks for giveaways at events like Sunday Parkways.

The best way to combat bike theft is to get more bikes registered and educate people about using high-quality locks — neither of which require a police officer. Sanders thinks even some of the background investigation work could be done by a civilian.

When it comes to contact with bike theft suspects though, Sanders believes armed officers are a must. “That’s our function, to be that mediator between the community and the suspect who might cause harm,” he said.

When the BTTF launched in March 2015, former Police Chief Larry O’Dea said, “I want to make it clear that this has been community-driven effort from the start and it will continue to be an equal partnership with the public.”

With reported bike theft cases up nearly 20% compared to last year and the suspension of the BTTF, the public will have to step up more than ever to address the issue.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. 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

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mperham
Subscriber

Unfortunate. Too bad they won’t redirect some money from their seemingly unlimited tear gas budget.

Jason
Guest
Jason

I’ve never gotten the warm fuzzies from PPB. They blame victims of traffic fatalities, my attempts to report video – documented road rage was denied, they don’t enforce traffic laws.

Keviniano
Guest
Keviniano

Maybe this work doesn’t need to be done by people with guns.

cmh89
Guest
cmh89

Of course they cut one of few useful things they do…

Johnny Bye Carter
Subscriber
Johnny Bye Carter

PPB: Bike sales are up 56%, let’s cut all the funding for helping those people keep their bikes.

Bjorn
Guest
Bjorn

This seems like a great thing to add to the list of money to take out of the PPB budget and put into social services. Much of the work of the task force could be done by someone without a gun and there is plenty of money in the PPB budget to just redirect.

Johnny Bye Carter
Subscriber
Johnny Bye Carter

They lasted 3 years on just a portion of $180,000, and the PPB has wasted $110,000 on improper responses to protests just this summer.

This shows that there’s plenty of money available to run the BTTF program.

LK
Guest
LK

It’s no surprise that the PPB is cutting well-liked, community-oriented programs in response to their fairly meager budget cuts. The bureau, by and large, has no interest in actually serving the city of Portland, and has active disdain for the people who actually live here. All they care about is maintaining their own power.

For people in the bureau like Ofcr Sanders who actually want to serve the city of Portland and its people, and find themselves getting screwed by these budget cuts, I recommend you find another job. Your good faith efforts will never be anything more than a bargaining chip for the cruel masters that run the bureau.

“Look what you made me do”, says the PPB in response to these cuts. “Look what you made me do” is the language of abusers.

Hello, Kitty
Guest
Hello, Kitty

Contact City Council — they’re the ones who have the power to undefund this program, and two of them (including the police commissioner!) are facing an election, so my be particularly receptive to constituent requests.

Champs
Guest
Champs

There could be so much more money if Wheeler would just do something, anything, to address the ongoing protests.

Were I the mayor I’d have a truth and reconciliation committee where the police and their victims get equal footing to talk about their experiences. We need to understand what roles are needed, figure out who should fulfill them, and show our work to the people who reflexively hate all notions of change.

Unfortunately I don’t think anybody still campaigning for mayor is up to the job. Four more years, one way or another.

Steve
Guest

Well, thank goodness for those fighting in the streets to make sure my next stolen bike never gets recovered.

Matt
Guest
Matt

Not surprising responses here on cop-hating BikePortland. Have a great weekend!

eddie
Guest
eddie

I’ve had multiple bikes stolen in Portland and I’ve never bothered calling the cops, I’d rather have them responding to a medical emergency or preventing a domestic abuse situation from escalating or somethin – remember, their job isn’t just to crack skulls, they also provide security for emergency personnel such as firefighters or paramedics, and are often the only people available to deescalate conflicts. First people who show up when you call 911. An important part of the emergency response network.

And they’re not all bastards. That’s just plain incorrect.

Bike theft has gotten super bad lately. You just have to lock your bike as securely as possible, leave it out of your sight as little as possible, and never leave anything – lights, pumps, frame bags – on your bike.

It’s cool the cops had a program for bike theft, but the fact is, as with many other growing cities, it’s just gonna get to be such a big problem no one can really do anything about it, aside from protecting their own bikes.

Mark Linehan
Guest
Mark Linehan

10,000 bicycles stolen in Portland every year, and only a few hundred recovered! Whether you focus on the number stolen or the number recovered, or the community education, it seems to me that this BTTF did not accomplish much. And it cost the City 4 (or 6?) officers for the last 3 years. Seems like the balance between cost and benefit is out of whack.

Bicycle theft is a big problem. We need a new way to address it, one that is more effective.

Dagny Taggart
Guest
Dagny Taggart

Radical, unhinged leftists Burn, Loot, Murder for 4 months demanding that radical, unhinged leftist politicians defund police. The politicians cave and give in to their unhinged constituents: police are defunded.

Radical, unhinged leftists upset when crime is no longer punished or investigated.

Laughable. 🙂

Bikeninja
Guest
Bikeninja

The answer is in this last monday’s news roundup, ” Bike Theft Vigilantes.” Can we all say it together, ” if the cops won’t do it eventually the victims will.”

Tom
Guest
Tom

Maybe its time to try some different approaches.

Other cities have installed on-demand shared e-lockers. Maybe a cluster for each business district to start.

Why not pass an ordinance that requires local bike shops to register new bikes with the free registrations when you purchase the bike, as a condition of sale.

Fred
Guest
Fred

I think we are seeing where the “defund the police” rhetoric is taking us.

X
Guest
X

After a second read of this article this line struck me: “…the unit has lost its only source of funding and will have to significantly scale back its work…” It’s a reasonable paraphrase of the brief Twitter announcement.

What is the source of Portland police funding?

Us. Are we gone? (We persist)

Who do Portland police work for?

Us. What do we want?

Not to be tear gassed in our homes. Not to be run over. Not to be brought up in federal court for civil protest, for committing journalism, for crimes of status, or for being of the wrong party.

Ian
Guest
Ian

Sad to hear about the funding cuts, but some if it is appropriate. Why fund outreach, when most events are canceled or gone virtual? The timing and optics are horrible, coming in the middle of a bike theft crime wave!

I am deeply appreciative of the task force and those who serve on it. I’ve had stolen bikes recovered several times over the years (as recently as yesterday!) thanks to their efforts.

Christopher Johnson
Guest
Christopher Johnson

Unfortunately the PPD has been profiling riders (especially those of color) and confiscating bikes from people who seem to have “too nice of a bike”. In addition to its dismal return success rate, the department has acquired thousands of “stolen” bicycles of which they are unable to find its original owner (nor were ever reported stolen). One must consider one of the reasons for its funding cut is due to its racist, illegal and unjust activities in the face of mass public protest and criticism.