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Bike Heist

news1Amidst backdrop of increasing bike thefts, failing to register a bicycle makes recovery unlikely

Perhaps the most miserable moment a bicycle owner can experience—at least of those that don't involve bodily injury—is discovering that their bike has been stolen. Maybe all that remains is the cable lock, snipped and dangling limply. Or perhaps a lone tire, standing upright in the bike rack.

The feelings are universal: violation, loss, anger.

One such victim is Linzi Webber. An avid bicyclist, she had both of her bikes stolen—an old cruiser and road bike—from her Seabright backyard within a week of one another in May. The second was locked.

One morning two weeks ago, Webber saw a man who she describes as looking homeless riding her cruiser, which she was able to identify as her own by the custom cup holder and its checkered seat cover.

Webber confronted the man, who told her he purchased the bike for $100, she says.

“I got into a tug of war with him over it, and, you know, he won,” she says.

Webber regrets not calling the police immediately because she had made a police report following the theft.

“I felt really vulnerable and violated, watching him ride off on my bike,” she says.

Webber isn’t alone: Crime data suggests that bike theft in Santa Cruz, while not a new experience for many who live here, is on the upswing. There were 219 bicycles reported stolen between January and May of this year, amounting to $187,033 in property loss, according to the Santa Cruz Police Department (SCPD).

In that same time frame last year, there were 162 reports, with a total worth of $148,643.

Of the past five months, May had the highest number of bikes stolen, at 66—a loss of $60,170. For January through April, the number of bikes stolen each month was in the 30s and 40s. Last year, monthly bike theft rates from January to April were all in the 20s and 30s.

news1-2More bikes were stolen between January and May of this year than were stolen in the same time period last year, according to the Santa Cruz Police Department.While the first line of defense for bike owners is proper security, one of the leading reasons people are unable to recover their bikes after they are stolen is because they have not registered them with the city, says Steve Schlicht, who started an online bike registration system independent from the city earlier this year.

Schlicht aims to demonstrate a more streamlined bike registration process that will encourage the community to register, prevent theft in the first place and, hopefully, help people get their stolen bikes back.

On the site, called Santa Cruz Bike Base, people can register their bicycles for free by creating a profile with their email address, the make, model and serial number of their bike, and a photo. The website time-stamps the registration and includes a section for people to report stolen bicycles.

The city previously had a $3 bicycle registration fee but waived it last November.

Now bike owners can register for free at the City Finance Department, the Santa Cruz Police Department, or the Santa Cruz Fire Department. Still, Schlicht says part of the problem with the city's system is that it has to be done in-person during work hours.

He feels that Bike Base, which has about 60 registrations so far, could serve as a model for the city to adopt.

“The site is not designed to replace what the city does, but more so [to] augment it and show that it can be done in a better fashion,” he says, adding that required point of sale registration would go a long way toward preventing bike thefts.

This is something that Marin Fernald, operations manager at Spokesman Bicycles, supports. Despite lack of registration, she says the police contact Spokesman about once every other month with a serial number and she is able to confirm the original buyer by looking through receipts backlogs.

SCPD Deputy Chief Steve Clark says bicycles are a category of stolen items frequently recovered by police. Although most recoveries are not as high profile, police recently found 30 intact and 50 dismantled bicycles when investigating potential drug sales, elder abuse and a possible bicycle chop shop at a home on La Fonda Avenue. They are looking into the ownership status of the found bikes.

He says that hundreds of bikes are being stored at the department but, because they have no registration, it is almost impossible to reconnect them with their rightful owners.

While acknowledging the increasing numbers in bike thefts as of late, Clark says property crimes overall are widespread and on the rise. Clark attributes this increase to Assembly Bill 109, or state prison realignment, which releases more low-level offenders from county jails to allow more room for the most dangerous criminals in jails and prisons. He says these felons often commit thefts as a means to fuel drug and alcohol addictions.

Sometimes, Clark says, police will contact individuals with expensive-looking bikes who the officers know do not have a job, are drug and or alcohol offenders, and have no apparent means of making such a big purchase.

“We'll say, 'Hey, nice bike. Where'd ya get it?' And they say, 'I bought it from a guy for 25 bucks,' which is suspicious, but there's no way we can confirm that it's stolen because the victim has either not reported it, or at the time of reporting didn't have appropriate information to help us identify it,” Clark says.

Beth Moorehead, who lives near the San Lorenzo River Levee, says she sees the illegal bike trade taking place regularly in the neighborhood.

She says she has witnessed people taking bikes down into the bushes along the levee carrying tools like hack saws and wire brushes, which can be used to file off a bicycle's serial number.

“This is happening right under our noses,” she says.

Moorehead, who has registered her bicycle on Bike Base, believes the theft problem has gotten significantly worse lately and suggests the city make it mandatory that people register their bikes, or run the risk of police confiscating them if the situation seems suspicious.

Santa Cruz City Councilmember Micah Posner says the bike registration issue is convoluted, explaining that bike registration is mandated by the city, but that the violation is simply a fix-it ticket and not actually enforced.

Clark says that in February of 2011, the SCPD proposed a requirement that licenses be affixed to bicycles, but that the bike community and the city council opposed the amendment, and, shortly after, the idea was dropped.

He says the requirement that the license be on the bike would have incentivized registration as well as authorized officers to stop a person they suspected was on a stolen bike. Most thieves remove the license sticker, he explains.

Clark estimates that of the bikes recovered by police, less than 10 percent are registered and able to be reunited with their owners.

Up until last week, the SCPD collaborated with the service organization Community Bridges and The Bike Dojo to donate the unclaimed bicycles to children, but Clark says the program was halted for re-assessment.

Posner says the decision to waive the $3 registration fee was coupled with making registration available online, but that the city has not yet starting designing a system. He intends to have an online city registration system implemented by May of next year.

To promote bike registration and bring more attention to the bicycling potential of the San Lorenzo River Levee, Schlicht and Moorehead have organized the inaugural Bike Base event “Santa Cruise” for Friday, June 28. Similar to Critical Mass bike rides, Santa Cruise will run the last Friday of each month at 6 p.m. from the Tannery Arts Center, along the levee to the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Schlicht is now aiming to connect with the SCPD on their current bike inventory and post the information on stored bikes to Bike Base.

“If I can start matching people up,” Schlicht says, “I think they'll see how important it is to register.” 

Learn more and register at santacruzbikebase.com.

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