City Desk

Bike Theft: A Victim, a Cop, and a Thief on Capitol Hill

Read Scott Martin says he never left his bike—a silver Specialized Rockhopper he bought used– untended or unlocked until, one afternoon, he did. Stopping off at a friend's Capitol Hill office building for a quick chat, Martin left his bike outside, behind a wrought iron gate and leaned into the storefront's doorway. The bike was in full view of the office's bay window, so he figured it was safe.

Loquacious in a Harvard-math-professor kind of way, the sandy-haired 43-year-old was unlikely to keep his tète-à-tète brief.

After talking over a "business matter" for about 30 minutes, Martin left the office, planning to hop on his mountain bike and pedal four blocks to his house on A Street NE. Not a chance. The bike had vanished.

Despite feeling "dumb" for neglecting to use his U-lock (it was attached to the bike, so the thief got that too) the marketing consultant called 911. "A squad car was there in 10 minutes," Martin says. "The thing that stood out was the officer was very familiar with the problem."

The other thing that stood out for Martin was that the cop didn't blame or criticize him. "I kept waiting for her to roll her eyes and say 'You stupid turkey,’...she didn't." In fact, she did the opposite, assuring him it wasn't his fault.

Though District cyclists might think a dude like Martin, naive enough to leave his bike unprotected while he runs an errand, got what he deserved, Sgt. Christopher Micciche of the D.C. Police Department’s Crime Reduction Team doesn't see it that way: "If you leave your car unlocked while you pump your gas, you probably do not want someone coming along and stealing your laptop out the passenger side door. And if you run into 7-11, it would be nice if you didn't have to worry about someone coming along and riding off on your bike."

That's one of the reasons he and the CRT plant bait bikes on D.C. streets. Micciche explains in an e-mail that the unlocked, decoy bikes are leaned "in a plausible location, such as in front of an occupied home, or on the porch, or outside of a business establishment-where one might likely find that an individual left their bike to transact their business momentarily."

When a bike hustler tries to wheel away the bait, the officers swarm.

The stings have produced 13 arrests so far, and have yielded some odd moments: Micciche remembers how two bike thieves were warned by officers to not take the bike, but then moments later "did so anyway" and how another "waited until his Metro bus arrived, then hustled over and grabbed the bike, placing it into the bus bike rack and boarding the bus."

He also remembers how most of the perps saw nothing wrong with what they did.  Almost every person who stole a bike “could not understand the concept of not taking property that didn't belong to them," Micciche says.

Some consider it their occupation.

An admitted bike thief, who would not allow his name to be printed, is likely the guy who stole Read’s bike for two reasons: He operates exclusively in Capitol Hill and Georgetown and his favorite  boost is an unlocked bike. "If a bike is unlocked," he says, "how's that stealing? It can't be stealing–you just found a bike."

The thief, a middle-aged guy built like an ex-athlete, stakes out a dimly-lit spot on a curb. This is where people can find him if they’re in the market for a stolen bike. Some he’s sold over the three or four years he’s been at this retail for thousands, but the thief has never let a hot cycle go for more than $75, he says.

He's never been yelled at or chased, much less arrested by the police. Really, he says, he’s providing a service: When he takes someone's wheels, it encourages people he robs to register their bikes next time.

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Comments

  1. #1

    He called 911 because of a stolen bike? Was it really an emergency that he couldn't walk his hipster ass four blocks home?

  2. #2

    He called 911 because of a stolen bike? Was it really an emergency that he couldn’t walk his hipster ass four blocks home?

    DC doesn't have a non-emergency 311 number, all calls have to go to 911, whether stolen bike or life-threatening emergency.

    (I am ignoring your hipster ass snipe on purpose)

  3. #3

    Not true. DC indeed has 311 (not to mention snipe-worthy hipsters). Check it: http://mpdc.dc.gov/mpdc/cwp/view,a,1237,q,547613,mpdcNav_GID,1554.asp

  4. #4

    I knew this guy once who got a job putting up posters, which required a bike. On his very first day, some jackass stole his bike. So he spends the next bunch of scenes trying to find the thief. Then eventually he steals a bike for himself, but gets caught. It was then that I realized that he was the bicycle thief all along.

  5. #5

    So it does, 2b3s. What happened to the merger, then? Was it determined to be a bad idea? If so, maybe it would have been good to make as much of a splash about reversing the decision as was made about it in the first place. Confusion is widespread.

  6. #6

    Capitol Hill resident here. All these online postings about Bike Theft has severly jaded me to now view every bike rider as a potential Thief on wheels.

  7. #7

    From the dc.gov website: "311 is a toll-free number that allows people in the District to Columbia to request city services and handle police matters that do not require police to respond to a location."

    This means if you want an officer to come out so you can get a police report and either make an insurance report, or retrieve the bike if it's ever found, you need to call 911.

    In other words, 2b3s is a smug, yet ignorant, commenter.

    311 is the equivalent of the old 727.1000 number; 911 is now the equivalent of 911/311 back in 'the day.'

  8. #8

    Karl: You are an idiot and an a-hole. The MPD repeatedly asks people to report any crime through 911.

  9. #9

    "Hipster ass" here. Guilty as charged. To clarify the 311-911 question, in this case the answer was neither. The person with whom I was meeting when my bike was stolen is related to a DC cop, so it was a cell phone. The chance to have someone look for the thief in minutes was too good for me to pass up, not that it made any difference.

    To Roger the Capitol Hill resident: Me too. If everyone thought that way then perhaps no one would ever leave a bike untended and unlocked again. As it is, the volume of unclaimed stolen bicycles is so high that I know of two reputable businesses in the DC area that do a nice job refurbishing and reselling used bikes. They get most of their inventory from the pool of unclaimed stolen bikes at police auction. Apart from supporting my local bike shop, I can think of no reason ever again to buy a new bike. If you ride regularly in DC any nice bike will eventually be stolen, if not while it's parked and locked, then from out of your garage. Also, if you use anything other than a U lock and industrial size chain as a lock, throw it in the trash. I see and hear from others that cables of all sizes are being snipped regularly.

  10. #10

    ditto re: cable locks. just make sure your U-lock isn't the kind you can open with a Bic pen...

    also, my problem with using unlocked bikes for the bike baiting project is that while it WILL catch people, the kind of people it will catch will tend to be opportunists, who the police should know are in limitless supply. but the real plague of the city's cyclists--which this type of operation WONT catch--are the premeditated bike thieves--the ones who scout bike racks and come along with bolt-cutters and are ostensibly plugged into some kind of fencing system. catch those guys, and we might actually see a drop in bike thefts citywide.

  11. #11

    ibc:

    I merely pointed out that DC does indeed have a 311 non-emergency number, not that one should call it when his or her bike is stolen. Labeling someone smug and ignorant for merely trying to correct the record, I think, demonstrates the lack of civility that drives a lot of would-be commenters away.

    That said, according to the website I cited, you should call 311 for "[p]roperty crimes that are no longer in progress and the offender is not on the scene. These include crimes such as vandalism, thefts, graffiti, stolen autos."

    Stolen autos but not stolen bikes? That seems odd.

  12. #12

    Read, thanks a lot for the 311/911 clarification. Thought nothing of switching out "reported it to the police" for "called 911" since, according to Capt Mike Gottert of MPD at least, calling 911 is currently the way to report a stolen bicycle.

  13. #13

    How about a follow up story on the fencing operation. Demand seems to drive the theft. I've had two bikes snatched in the last year, both locked, and it has driven me to the point of hiding my bike inside my office.

  14. Sgt. C.J. Micciche
    #14

    Well, first of all 911 is the only number by which to get the police these days. 311 has been converted to a customer service line for city services.

    Second, in the First District, the vast majority of stolen bicycles are opportunistic crimes involving bicycles that were not secured to immoveable objects.

    Third, while we used the "bait bike" program to target bicycle thefts, it also targets the many other opportunistic crimes, including thefts of packages from doorsteps.

    Fourth, while it would be nice to have the time and manpower to focus on the other bicycle thefts, such as the few thiefs that utilize bolt-cutters, it would be ridiculously inefficient. We could lock up a bike to a fence post and wait days and days, with possibly negative results. Additionally, it has been my experience that there are so many valuable unlocked bikes, why would any thief target locked bikes? The thief in the article seems to underline this point.

  15. #15

    Sgt., you are my hero. Might the bike racks now under construction at Union Station and other metro stations be watched by camera? Talk about your bait bikes... It seems to me that those are going to be happy hunting grounds for the bolt-cutting crowd and others, however few in number.

    Second, I know of a specific alley that gets traffic from folks with hot bikes who repair there to break up locks out of sight from the street and windows. If we know of a location that is being frequented by bike theft predators is there someone to whom we should write to nominate a new bait-bike location?

  16. #16

    Three bikes here. The $25 grocery getter bike gets parked in the backyard locked to the deck, the $1,000 commuter bike gets stored in the dinning room (wife "loves" that), and the $5,000 road bike gets stored in the guest bed room (locked to itself...paranoid, eh?).

    Pretty much if you're not willing to lose it, don't park it outside...or buy a bike of less value. Having your bike stolen is the worse.

  17. #17

    I just noticed in the picture that the bike is locked incorrectly. If I were a thief I'd steal the front wheel of that bad boy in a second...

    That is one of my biggest annoyances...if you have quick release levers on your bike, don't just lock up the frame...your bike will end up being permanent "frame" art.

  18. #18

    As a potential future bike purchaser, what it the correct way to lock up the bike? Slip the U around the bike rim as well? Any additional advice on locking up bikes would be appreciated.

  19. #19

    the effectiveness of all this bait stuff needs to be measured. i have the feeling i'd rather use our police resources more effectively.

  20. #20

    DistrictRider, Would like to. I'll take a crack at it.

  21. #21

    Peter - Measuring sounds fine. Consider: Is there a relationship between the broken windows theory of policing and bait bikes? Might tolerating the open season on bikes locked and unlocked be a big fat hood ornament for lacking a handle on a wide range of persistent repeaters responsible for a wide range of acts? I rather doubt these folks are any different from those who empty unlocked cars at night, enter and purloin from our garages, steal shrubbery from front yards, climb our back fences, and take down the occasional solo target on the walk back from the Metro station. And unlike the other ubiquitous targets, an unlocked bike is a solitary target and rather easy to watch (and in the right place, won't take long to get a hit). It sure would be nice to find out. Until all our bikes have inexpensive radio ID tags like the ones fed ex crates get while moving through Memphis - or a Lo Jack - bait bikes sound to me like the way to go.

  22. Sgt. C.J.Micciche
    #22

    Anyone who wishes to nominate a new "bait bike" location, or who has additional information about thefts of bikes, or for that matter any other crime on Capitol Hill, may email me at my departmental address: christopher.micciche@dc.gov.

  23. #23

    Got my bike stolen at union station, I will never get over it, bike riders take it very hard, I was very attached to my bike, I would have rather had my car stolen. It was almost a year ago and still everywhere I go I every bike I see, I look to see if it's mine. And yes, I have a complex now, I know what bikes cost and when I see someone who obviously is not a biker, wearing street clothes and no helmet, and drinking something out of a paper bag, riding a $5,000 bike, I'm suspicious. I would like to join this police task force, I would do it for free. Oh, and does anyone know where all these stolen bikes go?

  24. #24

    he volume of unclaimed stolen bicycles is so high that I know of two reputable businesses in the DC area that do a nice job refurbishing and reselling used bikes

    read, where are these places?

  25. #25

    The only way we'll ever reduce bike theft is to assign serious jail time for it, which will never happen. Even though the theft of some bikes qualify as grand theft, they are usually pleaded to petty theft. Prosecutors and judges just aren't willing to waste jail space on someone whom they view as little threat to the community. As such, getting busted for bike theft is a joke for most criminals.

    As a life-long resident of the District, I've had three bikes stolen. Two of them were strong arm situations (I was a child and was assaulted twice by roving gangs of bike thieves that would access NW via Rock Creek from NE and other parts South), and one was a cut lock situation.

  26. #26

    juliagulia -

    The first place I have three times bought bikes for others there, and like:

    bulldogbikerestoration.com

    second place, I have not bought at but I have seen their selection and it's decent - they are bike sellers who set up at the Arlington Courthouse farmer's market on Saturdays, and at the Georgetown farmer's market on Sundays. Similar prices to Bulldog ($125 and up for clean, refurbished basic transportation and some finds)

    Most of these bikes were reported bought at auction but I said "police auction" in a previous post and I'm not actually sure of what percentage of the auctions were from the police or just what people donated to Salvation Army and the like. The high quality makes me think it's the former more than the latter.

    Only drawback either place is it's impossible to shake off the uneasy feeling about where they all came from. But it beats paying for a new one.

    If you like to have a bike shop attached to your ride, for great service and avoiding unpleasant surprises, Mt. Airy Bikes and College Park bikes (same owner) sell a ton of used high quality rdes but they are priced on the high side.

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