Bait bikes

Officer Matt Friedman fights crime with modern tools: Twitter, which he uses to publicize pictures of suspects and convicted criminals, and a GPS device, which he uses to track down stolen property.

In both cases, his lure is stolen bicycles — including the “bait bikes” that have recently been seeded throughout the city to tempt potential thieves. Equipped with GPS technology, the bicycles, which exist to be stolen, can be tracked down in real time and the thieves can be arrested. Then their photographs are posted to Twitter from the handle @SFPDBikeTheft. The bait bikes are of high value, to ensure that people caught taking them are charged with a felony.

Recently, for example, a thief took a $1,500 bicycle from outside a train stop and pedaled off into the sunset. But 30 minutes later, Officer Friedman and his team, having tracked the bike, converged on the rider at a park.

“You should have seen his face — he thought he was in the clear,” said Officer Friedman, 41, who carries a .40-caliber Sig Sauer semiautomatic and an iPhone 5, which he used that day to take a picture of the severed bike lock. He then posted an image on Twitter with the message: Thank You 4 Taking Our Bait Bike.

I hadn't heard of this new tactic before. As someone who had three bikes stolen while an undergrad, my instinct is to embrace any and all measures to fight bike crime, including the public shaming. As noted in the article, the University of Wisconsin, Madison saw a 40% drop in reported bike thefts the first year they rolled out a bait bike program.

However, the social cost here is fuzzier. As educator Zeynep Tufekci writes:

If you are still fuming at the memory of a bike being stolen (I am, even now) and wondering why these thieves should not get charged with felonies, ponder for a moment. [Added: an add other minor or major infractions for the next example: it’s not a perfect example.] Have you ever rolled through a stop sign? Have you failed to perfectly stop, ever? Rolling through stop signs puts people’s lives at risk and is done just as intentionally as stealing a bike. It’s more dangerous and destructive than stealing a bike. [Though it’s been pointed out by people who understand the laws better than I do that our criminal code does not view that as the same kind of intention as bike stealing. I don’t claim to be making a legal argument, but just trying to push our imagination politically.]

Sure, there is a cost to bike theft, and it is a problem. But there is also cost to rendering large numbers of people unemployable through felony convictions.

Now imagine a city in which areas in which tech workers lives were equipped with cameras that caught everyone who ever rolled through a stop sign. You got a felony charge, since the evidence was indisputable. You lost your job, and could never work in the same sector again. You can’t vote either. Maybe you have probation. Your life is ruined, forever, and fairly irrecoverably.

Officer Friedman, mentioned in the excerpt above, responded to charges of the program being a form of entrapment by noting that bait bikes

...are not simply left out unlocked for opportunistic types. (Unlike SFPD's reality TV-ready Bait Car program that was quickly halted a few years back.) They are locked up and then swiped by thieves with the tools to do so and the know-how to unload them. Like this recidivist on the street with an angle grinder, or these guys running a chop shop on 13th Street, or a notorious bike thieves in the East Bay.

If my bike were recovered through such a program, I'd just be happy to get it back. Having the thief charged with a felony would be unnecessarily harsh.

Perhaps technology will offer alternative solutions in the future. The cost of small tracking devices is coming down. Many crowdfunding projects are for little tracking tags or gizmos that you can attach to or put in your valuables to be able to detect their location on your phone. The problem is that most operate on Bluetooth and have limited range and battery life, but perhaps those problems can be overcome. In that world, theft might be less prevalent because of the increased difficulty of hiding the object.

One might argue that a bike thief could come up with electronic countermeasures to combat tracking devices, but most bike thieves are looking to unload bikes as soon as possible and not seeking to maximize their cash return on each component or the entire bike itself. The cost of countermeasures might not be worth the investment given the low cash return on each stolen bike.