Bicycle Theft, Problem-Oriented Policing
A summary of (2008) Bicycle Theft. Centre for Problem-Oriented Policing by .Shane D. Johnson, Aiden Sidebottom and Adam Thorpe.
Understanding the problem of bicycle theft is hampered because police data typically under-represent the problem. This is illustrated by data from the International Crime Victim Survey (2000), which show that across the 17 countries surveyed (including the United States), on average only 56 percent of bicycle thefts were reported to the police.
U.S. crime statistics are collated using both National Crime Victim Survey (NCVS) data from a yearly national survey, and data recorded by the police. Comparing the two data sources highlights the problem of underreporting. For example, in 2004, bicycle theft accounted for 3.6 percent of all incidents of larceny (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2005), which equates to more than 250,000 bicycles stolen each year. According to an estimate from the NCVS, in 2006 the number of incidents of theft-of or theft-from bicycles was more like 1.3 million (just under 2.5 incidents per minute). This suggests that for every crime reported, another four (or more) may have occurred. (p.4)
It is important to be aware that victims and offenders may not always represent distinct groups. For example, studies suggest that victims of bicycle theft sometimes either steal bicycles themselves to compensate for their loss, or knowingly buy bicycles that are themselves stolen. This type of pattern illustrates a concept referred to as a crime multiplier, whereby one offense leads to the commission of several others. These offenses may include the fencing or receiving of stolen goods. Thus, a single bicycle theft does not necessarily equate to one offense, but may lead to a series of related crimes.
Factors Contributing to Bicycle Theft
Thieves can easily sell stolen bikes, either “whole” or “piecemeal,” to a fence or through other outlets (such as online auctions). Evidence suggests many thieves want to sell stolen goods quickly to reap a financial profit. Abundant “buyer’s” markets for stolen bikes may therefore provide an incentive to steal. Regrettably little is known about the market for stolen bicycles, but the proof-of-ownership problem suggests few bicycles could easily be identified as stolen, which aids the sale of stolen bikes and reduces the risk of apprehension and identification. Moreover, offenders can disguise stolen bicycles by painting different parts, altering components, or scratching any property-marking etchings, making positive identification harder. One prolific offender reported that bicycles or parts may be stolen to order, but systematic evidence of this is unavailable.)
Registration and Recovery
Using traditional bicycle-registration programs.
Bicycle registration schemes could reduce cycle theft in several ways. Cycle registration would make it easier to identify stolen bikes and to identify their rightful owners. It may also serve to deter bike thieves by making registered bikes harder to dispose of (e.g., sell). In Appleton, Wisconsin, a registration program was implemented as early as 1972. A total of 17,000 bikes were registered, and the police adopted an enforcement strategy that involved constructing a “hot” bike list and monitoring the serial numbers of bicycles parked in racks at junior high schools. They recovered 10 stolen bikes in this way and gained 15 convictions. Unfortunately, it is unclear from the published report over what period active enforcement took place, how intense it was, and whether there was an impact on bicycle theft.
In Portsmouth, England, a problem-oriented policing project titled “Operation Mullion” aimed to reduce, among other things, bicycle thefts at a local school.71 In conjunction with the local media and council, a bicycle-marking program was implemented at the school and in the surrounding area in the form of road shows. Bicycles were marked using ultraviolet pens or acid etchings, and a 24/7 telephone database was launched to enable cyclists to log details about themselves and their bikes. Though such measures were part of a package of responses, assessment indicated that reported cycle thefts at the school decreased by 39 percent in the year following the marking program. In addition, there was anecdotal evidence of a diffusion of benefits, whereby schoolchildren were taking the ultraviolet pens home and marking other property.
At Tufts University (Massachusetts), police implemented a sting operation to try to catch offenders involved in what was thought to be an organized bicycle-theft group. The operation resulted in four arrests.72 These arrests were possible only because the police could identify the stolen bicycles’ rightful owners.
In Dayton, 5,000 cycles were registered in 1998. Compared with the 2 previous years, police returned around twice as many recovered bicycles (38 percent) to their owners. Similarly, in Eugene, Oregon, police recovered 14 percent of stolen bikes that had been marked, compared with 5 percent of those stolen unmarked. In Cambridge, of the approximate 1,500 cycles police recover annually, they return about 300 to their owners. To increase the recovery rate, police post pictures of recovered cycles on a police web site.73
These reports suggest that registration programs may particularly help in returning recovered bicycles to their rightful owners. This can be useful for several reasons: it can reduce the number of recovered bikes that police must store (and investigate); it may reduce the cost of crime to the victims, as they will not have to replace recovered bicycles (unless they are damaged); and it can be a good public relations exercise in that the community can see that the police are doing something about the problem.
A potential shortcoming with cycle registration programs is that they are unlikely to prevent theft from cycles, as only the bicycle’s frame is typically marked. Thus, if your local problem is not theft of bicycles, then cycle registration programs are unlikely to help. In addition, bicycle theft will be prevented only if offenders are aware of the program. Offenders will usually be in a hurry to steal a bike, and may consequently fail to notice bike markings that indicate the owner has registered Bicycle
Car registration has been mandatory in most countries for some time, so a consideration of car registration’s effectiveness may be instructive. In reviewing the evidence, Webb (2005) concludes that registration programs’ potential effects on crime have been hampered by problems that include database inaccuracies and inadequate enforcement. It is possible that bicycle registration programs could experience similar problems without adequate consideration given to their implementation. Important to this kind of program are coverage and continuity. If records are not maintained or coverage is limited, then such programs are unlikely to have positive effects it. The overt marking of registered bicycles, therefore, is important if the aim of the intervention is to prevent cycle theft in addition to aiding the recovery and return of stolen cycles.
6. Implementing an electronic tagging program. A more recent example of a cycle marking and registration program that may make such strategies simpler to implement uses Radio Frequency Identification Devices (RFID), which are also widely used in the retail sector for tracing stolen goods and deterring thieves. At Ohio State University, a program called Bug-a-Bike™ provides cyclists with the opportunity to have a small RFID tag securely installed in the seat post of their bicycle, or fixed to the frame.74 Striking labels are also fixed to the “bugged” bicycles to warn would-be offenders. Participating cyclists are required to submit their details to a web-based registry system linked to their unique RFID tag. This enables the bike to be registered to the owner, and if stolen, the police can identify the bicycle using an RFID reader.
Installing an RFID on bicycle frames is an important recent development that allows the bikes to be easily scanned and compared with a “hot list” of stolen bicycles; when RFID tags are installed in the seat post, the seat must be removed before scanning, which is likely to substantially reduce the practicality of the approach.75 To date, Ohio State University’s program has been successful in the sense that 547 cyclists have registered their cycles, recovered bicycles have been returned to their owners, and students seem to like it.§ The latter is important, as registration programs’ effectiveness will be partly determined by their uptake.§§
A similar RFID program in Southend, England, has taken this approach one step further by implementing a stolen-market-reduction initiative.76 In this case, police provided RFID readers to local bicycle dealers who had agreed to check whether bicycles brought to them for sale or repair had been reported as stolen.77 Although a systematic assessment of this intervention’s impact on bicycle theft was unavailable at the time of writing,§ it illustrates the potential for new technology to enhance existing strategies. Potential problems with such interventions are that they depend on a reasonable degree of implementation to be effective, and that they are unlikely to affect the sale of stolen bicycle parts.
A similar program that was evaluated in Cambridge showed that crime did fall during the intervention period, but as the authors of this study point out, interpretation of the findings is difficult, as police arrested a prolific offender during the evaluation period, and this arrest alone could have been responsible for the reduction observed (Bullock and Tilley 2003).
Sokol (1992) describes a program implemented at Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.) that provided an incentive for cyclists to register their bikes. Here, secure locks were available for loan to students on the condition that they first registered their bicycles. No evaluation of the program’s ultimate outcome exists, but the example illustrates a useful way of combining three crime-prevention responses in one (encouraging bicycle registration, providing better locks, and publicizing better locking practices).