U police care about bike theft

But how about planting decoy bikes rigged with Global Positioning System tracking devices?

John Hoff

This week’s hottest issue is “Who cares about campus bike theft?” Writing in response to the April 5 Daily editorial “Kudos and Gripes” asserting that the University Police Department doesn’t care (enough) about bike theft, high-ranking campus police personnel asserted, in no uncertain terms, that University police care. They also asserted, in so many words, the Daily sucks because of “freedom of the press” issues about turning over photos to police.

Naturally, I can’t resist a hot debate about bike theft, so I fired off an e-mail to University Deputy Police Chief Steve Johnson. Here are a few of my questions, and his answers:

Q: Would there be value in concealing a GPS tracking device to a decoy bike in order to discover places where stolen bikes are being taken? Or to use concealed video cameras? When it comes to “stings” and “undercover” operations, it seems like students are hoping for, how shall I phrase it? More oomph. More technology directed at the thieves. If there were value in such technology, would it fit into your current budget or would you need more money?

A: These are interesting ideas. Do you know if others are using this GPS with bikes? I know (Minneapolis Police Department) has some decoy cars that occasionally get stolen. They trap the thieves in the car and video tape them while reporting the location to the police. Great tool!

I do not know what the expense would be until I know what resources would need to make this sort of operation work. Our budget is pretty tight but we will spend $ if we can get good results back.

Cameras definitely could be added in high volume parking areas. Parking and Transportation is in charge of setting up the bike parking areas on campus. They would have to be a partner in putting in cameras. I do not know of cameras put in specifically for this purpose. They would be expensive.

Q: It’s my opinion your department should have resources for the most effective stings possible.

A: Just so you know UMPD has jurisdiction over properties operated or leased by the University. That said we took over 1000 calls off campus last year. Our call load has gone up 24 percent in the last couple years and most of that is off campus. I know you talked about your bike being stolen. I think it was in Dinkytown. (Hoff: Yes, not too far from Burrito Loco. A red Magna 21-speed with silver trim. Please keep your eyes peeled, sir!)

We do not have primary jurisdiction there but do frequently patrol there and answer many calls there. I personally believe the biggest difference is going to be made (in preventing crime) by getting the word out to students early as they come here. We do speak at orientations but that is two solid days of info overload for students. The message needs to be other places also.

We are hoping to hire a civilian crime prevention analyst in our 2007 budget. This is currently a request for 2007. That person will do a job that is shared by many here and strengthen communication with students.

Q: I was told by the Minneapolis PD that Dinkytown was “like a swap meet” with so many bikes being stolen. This hardly makes me think it’s worthwhile to report it if my NEXT bike gets stolen.

A: I cannot account for comments made by another agency. I do appreciate that you differentiate the comment coming from MPD and not from UMPD.

(Johnson also discussed how discouraged he was by the rates of reported theft and inconsistent interest in the issue by members of the MSA.)

A year or so ago I was on a panel listening to a senior project presented on bike theft. They had surveyed students about reporting bike theft to the police. It was discouraging because only about 20 percent of those surveyed actually reported the theft to the police because they didn’t think it would do any good.

A couple Minnesota Student Association members were involved with this project and I talked with them about follow up meetings to work together to get bikes registered. We met at our station and Sgt. Stenemann started planning a web based reporting and registration system with them. The MSA people involved were to get this system started with our help. MSA leadership changed and Sgt. Stenemann hasn’t heard from them since. Our recent “Rental Summit” meetings at CMU with MSA may revitalize this idea if they do follow up with us.

In response to Johnson’s interest in GPS tracking devices, I did research online. It turns out that, in Great Britain, GPS tracks expensive bikes. The systems are so successful that bikes are recovered “almost before they are stolen.”

GPS also has been used with expensive Harley-Davidson motorcycles. It turns out the GPS is not only useful in thwarting thieves, but also for those inevitable, much tamer “Dude, where’s my hog?” situations where it’s hard to remember where you parked your iron horse.

What I like about the idea of a GPS decoy bike is the possibility of tracking a stolen bike back to the rat’s nest where other stolen bikes may be stashed. There, I suspect, cartoony evil is plotted. How bike theft at the University fits into a plan for world domination is not clear to me, but I’m sure University police can figure it out with a little help from the Power Rangers.

But seriously, University police can’t be blamed when evidence shows only 20 percent of students report theft, and MSA members turn over faster than weenies on a hot rack at SuperAmerica. Johnson has convinced me that UMPD really cares. But the Daily cares, too. Lots of people care. How should caring be translated into action by all interested parties?

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected]