Twitter Helps Combat Local Bike Theft
| By Heidi Smith |
Bikes vanish in San Francisco at an alarming rate — one bike is stolen every three hours.
The city estimates more than $4.6 million worth of bikes are stolen each year, according to a report by the Board of Supervisors. Most of them are never recovered because they immediately get sold on the black market or get disassembled and repainted in chop shops.
Under the freeway in the Mission District, there are dozens of chop shops where bikes and parts are piled up. The San Francisco Police Department called for a crackdown on chop shops last August. Other chop shop hotspots are the UN Civic Center Plaza, 6th and Mission and Division streets. While police frequently sweep these camps, they pop back up in a different location a few days later.
“We get a lot of complaints of chop shops within homeless encampments,” said Captain Daniel Perea of Mission Station. “The challenge we find ourselves up against is that a bike only has one serial number. We run checks on that number, but if they don’t come back as stolen, we can’t legally do anything.”
According to the SF Data website, 455 bicycles were reported stolen in San Francisco in 2016. The data shows that 85 of those were reported to the Mission Station during that time. Perea believes the actual number of stolen bikes is much higher due to failure to report missing bikes. He encourages people to register their bikes at SFSafe.org and to report their bikes stolen.
Officer Matthew Friedman, known as the city’s bike theft guru, started fighting bike theft on the streets as well as on social media in 2013. He started the Twitter account @SFPDBikeTheft to post and receive tweets on stolen bikes. It serves as a place to log stolen bikes and place to post photos of crimes in progress. Friedman has since been transferred to another assignment and is no longer running the Twitter account. The SFPD Media Relations unit has now taken over the account. The bad news is that they do not post as avidly as Friedman did. The good news is that private citizens are tweeting about bike theft on a daily basis.
Bryan Hance runs the SF Twitter feed for Bike Index. Fed up with bike theft, Hance started a stolen bike registry where people could check a serial number. He later teamed up with Bike Index, a site where people can register their bikes before they get stolen. The biggest registry in the nation, Bike Index has over 100,000 registered bikes. Twitter is their main form of announcement. With over 2,600 followers in San Francisco, they have a lot of eyes out looking for stolen bikes.
“We run it because it is a system we think needs to exist,” he said. “We make it real easy for bike shops and cops to try to recover bikes. Some bikes cost up to $6,000 dollars.”
Bike Index only recovers three percent of their stolen bikes back. Hance said that the SFPD has been helpful by escorting people to recover their stolen bike that they find for sale online on Craigslist or apps like Let Go. However, if a bike is stolen at 9 a.m. and sold by 1 p.m, by the time an officer responds to a call, it’s too late. Bike Index has published information on their website about what to do if your bike gets stolen, as well as how to not buy a stolen bike online.
Bike messenger Randall Dietel has personally gotten six bikes back for people through non-aggressive interactions and is an active Twitter presence on bike theft. He thinks chop shops are just a small part of the larger bike theft epidemic.
According to Dietel, once a bike is stolen, the thieves aim to get rid of it as soon as possible by offloading the bikes to a fence, a person who buys stolen merchandise from thieves. He said fences only want bikes that are valued above $1,000 and that the bikes fences don’t take either get sold for $10 on the street or trickle down into chop shops. Then bikes just become a piece of currency for bartering.
“The chop shops may be run by a mentally ill person living on the street,” Dietel said. “They take bikes apart all day long and then maybe trade a wheel for speakers or $30 worth of crack. This gives them 20 things to trade instead of one whole bike.”
He thinks that a more aggressive approach by the police may have a broader effect on the cycle.
“Once a bike is into a chop shop environment, spending police resources is pointless,” Dietel said. “They’ve got to get to the root of the issue. There should be no chop shops allowed at all. If you knock out bikes, you take away an abstract currency for people to buy drugs with.”
John O’Sullivan is another social media hero when it comes to bike theft. After witnessing bikes stolen from the valet parking lot at his office on Market Street, O’Sullivan decided to get a folding bike that he can store under his desk at work. There is a chop shop directly below his office window. He often sees people spray-painting bikes and breaking them apart into smaller pieces. He spies on the bike thieves and takes photos of the crimes through a telescope. He then tweets the photos out to the SFPD and tags others involved in recovering stolen bikes in SF.
Captain Perea expressed gratitude towards the online Twitter community helping police officers combat bike theft.
“It’s our job to catch people and we will keep doing our best to do that,” he said. “If people can get the word out, it helps. All of us working together have a greater chance of resolving the issue at hand.”