Michael Lately, there's an upswing on burglaries in our neighborhood, as we know first-hand from Nextdoor (Rundbrief 09/2014). About six months ago, we fell victim to a burglar too, who cracked open the lock to our parking garage and stole my bicycle. I had been aware that dubious creatures keep wandering around there at night, and took precautions by locking the bick with a thick solid metal lock and tied the bike to a steel pipe by means of a metal cable.
Alas, the thief apparently had brought along a bolt cutter, because when Angelika set out to drive off in the morning, she noticed that the cable was cut and the bike was gone. Thinking back, I had purchased the bicycle exactly 16 years ago at the price of $400, and although the loss hurt because I had put countless hours into replacing worn out or stolen parts over the years, it wasn't the end of the world. I filed a police report by calling the non-emergency number 553-0123 in San Francisco, and was pleasantly surprised to see that later that same day, two police officers showed up at my doorstep to investigate. I showed them around in the garage and answered questions about the bike while they were scribbling notes into their notebooks. Well, to be honest, I didn't get my hopes up and soon forgot about the whole thing.
Six months later, a downtown San Francisco police officer called us at home, leaving a message with Angelika that he had recovered my bicycle. The good news came quite by surprise, and I was asked to stop by the police station on 6th Street in San Francisco after work.
If you don't know your way around downtown San Francisco, let me assure you that it's a lot cleaner now than 20 years ago, with less homeless people crowding the streets. But if you're curious about taking in a lasting impression of one of the most run-down city areas, I recommend you stroll down 6th Street at the brink of dusk. It's almost like being placed into the ficticious world of the TV series "Walking Dead", where one needs to constantly be on high alert, making sure to not get caught and eaten by individuals who are romping around there and apparently drugged up to their eyeballs. That being said, I don't think the locals there are really a public threat, because I'd be surprised if any of them could actually afford a gun, mainly because all of their money is most likely spent on the next crack pipe. Which reminds me, there's been a funny article onCraigslist on crack pipes lately, which you might enjoy.
So I ended up waiting in the middle of this mess, like an idiot with my laptop-filled backpack, in front of a strangely shabby but apparently real (Flying US flag, surveillance cameras) police station, which was closed shut! I got my phone out and texted the officer, who told me he'd already gone home for the day but a fellow officer would stop by soon to get me my bike back. A while later, I saw a few cops patrolling down 6th street and asked them about their colleague. They knew about the case, and one of them asked me to follow him to a storage room nearby. On the way there, he stopped several somewhat beligerent hoodlums hanging out on the sidewalk and even searched one guy's bag! I was following at a distance feeling really uneasy, silently cursing about having agreed to this handover.
But, low and behold, after a few minutes we arrived at a storage room, the officer unlocked the door and I spotted a seriously deteriorated version of my bike. The frame was the same as on my original, but all other parts like handlebar, saddle, and gears had been replaced by cheaper components. Brakes were lacking entirely. The officer asked me if the bicycle was in rideable condition, which I was somewhat skeptic about and illustrated my point by bringing attention to the missing brakes. But since they all had been working hard to get my stolen property back, I decided to give them a break and took the bike with me. I called Angelika to pick me up by car downtown, we stuffed the bike into the trunk and drove home. I placed the bike back into the garage, where it's been waiting since for the next burglar to appear.
The police officer asked me to apply a so-called "Bait Bike" sticker to my bike (Figure 4). This was news to me, and the officer explained that some bikes are allegedly left out there on purpose and equipped with GPS transmitters, so that if they're stolen, the location of the thief can be pinpointed. Getting a transponder onto every single bike would be prohibitively expensive, so all non-equipped bikes simply get a sticker, which will allegedly deter potential thieves. Personally, I'm not too sure this approach will actually work, but at least it won't cost much to try.
Bicycle thieves in San Francisco have pretty much free reign, there's no real effort by the city to stop this kind of petty crime. News repots and even entire videos of bicycle thieves in action (Figure 1) show that there really is a problem. What's funny is that the thief caught on camera turns out differently than you might expect at first: That white dude with his backpack looks like a hipster who just got off the Google bus!
It looks like hawking stolen bikes is a profitable business in the Bay Area. I've even seen scientific publicationson the economics of stolen bicycles. And one remarkable theft victim combed through Craigslist postings, searching for his stolen bike, and hit paydirt 600 miles north, in Portland, Oregon. He went there and took the thief to task. Well worth watching!