29 December 2017

When It's Gone In Tucson: You Have A 3 Percent Chance

I feel like somebody broke my leg.

Tucson, Arizona resident Leif Abrell voiced what many of us felt when a bicycle was stolen from us.  He lost his custom-made mountain bike in the wee hours of 28 September.  Like most bike-theft victims, he didn't see that his trusty steed was gone until it was too late:  A noise woke him and he noticed the door to his carport was open.  He checked to see whether anything valuable was missing, but in his groggy state, it didn't occur to him to look in the dining room of his midtown home.  When he did, he saw that his treasured bike was missing.  And he found a much-inferior bike deserted on the side of the street next to his house.

The rest of his story is also all-too-familiar to those of us who've had our wheels whisked away:  He reported his loss to the police.  While he "didn't have high hopes" for recovering his bike, he clung to "some hopes that something would happen," he recounted.  Alas, "nothing really happened," he said.

I learned of Abrell's ordeal from an article on Tucson.com.  According to that same article, 1200 bike thefts have been reported to police in "The Old Pueblo".  Only about three percent of those cases ended in arrests of suspected thieves and, worse, there's really how many stolen bikes are returned to their rightful owners.  As in most cities, the police don't track that.

Perhaps most disheartening of all, 63 percent of this year's bike theft cases were marked as "cleared", meaning they reached some sort of conclusion. Why is that disheartening?  Well, most of those cases were closed because there wasn't enough evidence to continue an investigation.  

Everything I've mentioned confirms something known to most of us who have had bikes stole:  Once it's gone, you'll probably never see it again.

Chris Hawkins, a Tucson police spokesman, echoed a common refrain in explaining why it's so difficult to track stolen bicycles:  In most places, "bicycles don't need to be registered like vehicles."  And, he says, bicycle owners rarely record serial numbers, which can be entered into databases for access by owners of second-hand shops and other establishments where stolen bikes might end up. 

The lack of such records, Hawkins says, is one reason why, even when bikes are retrieved by cops and find their way to the evidence room, they are seldom re-united with their owners.  

While Hawkins makes good points, the cynic in me (I am a New Yorker, after all) wonders whether some police departments would actively pursue bike a bike theft even if they had serial numbers and other records.  While some officers, like some people in other professions and jobs, simply don't care, others are simply overwhelmed by competing priorities and directives. 

Sometimes I think one has the best hope of getting a stolen bike back if a shop owner or mechanic recognizes it--or if its owner encounters it on the street.


  1. Property crimes in general are not priority in most police departments. The general attitude is that it's a matter for your homeowner's or renter's insurance.

    About two years ago though, a north suburban Chicago PD, in response to a number of complaints about bike theft, actually staked out their commuter train station and witnessed two men selecting and "liberating" high-end bikes from the rack and putting them into their unmarked panel van. The officers tailed them to a garage in the city, got the CPD involved and a warrant and recovered well over 100 bikes. i don't know how many got back to their owners, but the CPD posted pictures on their website.

    The two men were charged with felony theft, and their pictures were circulated on local cycling websites.

    A rare resolved case. The high end bikes from Chicago often go to Madison or Milwaukee and their hot bikes sometimes end up here. Most thefts though are hit-and-run local crimes of opportunity. i'd be surprised if the recovery rate around here were as high as 1%.

  2. Have you had your bikes' serial numbers entered into any databases? I haven't.

    1. i've only bothered to record SNs in a computer file and in a ledger book for insurance purposes. Only a couple of small departments around me bother with keeping registration records. They really don't care.

  3. Steve--I haven't yet. I think about it, but wonder how much good it would actually do here in NYC.

    Mike--I'm glad to hear that at least two thieves were caught. It's too rare an occurrence. And you are right about most bike theft being a "crime of opportunity": I stopped a theft once that would have happened had I not chanced upon the scene.

  4. Oddly, looking at the National Bike Registry, it appears that some NYC Police Precincts subscribe and others do not. It makes me wonder what happens should your bike be found by police in the "wrong" Precinct compared to if it gets found in a "good" one.

  5. Steve--I was reading your post about this subject, and I had the same question. Maybe I should call the NYPD.