May 7, 2014

Can You Spot the Bait Bike?

The Bike Theft Unit of the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) wants would-be bike thieves to think twice before making off with the shiny Schwinn propped in the alleyway or the Cannondale cable-locked to the parking meter. "Does that bike have a GPS tracker?" they want the could-be criminal to ask himself. "Will taking it land me behind bars?"

As part of its recently launched bait bike program, SFPD printed 30,000 yellow stickers aimed at making potential thieves uneasy: "Is this a bait bike?" they read.

San Francisco is far from the first city to fight its bike theft problem by planting un- or poorly-secured GPS-equipped bikes and then apprehending whoever decides to walk off with them. WashCycle reported in August 2008 that DC police used bait bikes in an attempt to combat a spate of bike thefts in the Capitol Hill area. Two unsecured bikes left on the 600 block of H Street NE were stolen five times in less than an hour!

Universities have also gone the bait bike route, with the University of Wisconsin—Madison widely credited as among the first to adopt the strategy. The UW—Madison Police Department reported a 40% decrease in bicycle thefts during the first year of bait bike deployment, and will be launching the program again to combat a rise in thefts. Other schools credit bait bikes with reductions in bike thefts of as much as 75%. Of course the publicity of the campaigns is key. Bait bikes allow police to apprehend thieves; wariness of bait bikes has the potential to deter theft before it happens.

SFPD sought to raise awareness of its bait bike program with what turned out to be a short-lived post on Craigslist. "We Have our Bait Bikes Out" read the headline above a graphic of a skeleton on a bike. The post was swiftly flagged for removal, but not before Grist snagged a screenshot.

Awareness, though, can be a double-edged sword. Thieves in Madison have gotten wise to the bait bike game, and the UW—Madison Police Department now contends with criminals who locate and remove the GPS trackers. Until stealthier GPS units hit the market, officers rely on ingenuity to conceal existing technology more effectively.

Nor is it just thieves who have it out for bait bikes. The low-hanging fruit of an unlocked bike, Christopher Moraff argues in Philadelphia Magazine, is more likely to attract the opportunist than the crime kingpin:
"If you present an absurdly easy opportunity for a petty property crime you’re probably not going to nab the Al Capone of stolen Schwinns. You’re going to get the kid on his way home from school, or the unemployed middle-aged janitor, or the homeless drug addict, who heard opportunity knock and decided to listen."
That said, an April 29 operation involving officers from SFPD, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police, and the Contra Costa Sheriff's Department brought in two thieves, one of whom is a repeat bike theft offender and being called one of the "top three bike thieves in the area." So perhaps the bait bike net can catch more than small fry.

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