Bait bike program nets first bust for University police

The thief grabbed one of the GPS-tracked bikes and was caught.

Kyle Richard Sando

University of Minnesota police arrested a man shortly after he stole a decoy bike set out by the department. After two years in action, this was the first arrest made through the program.

With 127 cases reported around the University campus this calendar year alone, bike theft is the single greatest theft problem the University police deal with, Deputy Chief Chuck Miner said. But now, thanks to updated technology, the department is ready to tackle the problem.

Police arrested the thief Sept. 24. The bait bike he stole was equipped with a highly accurate GPS unit, University police said.

âÄúIt worked out perfect,âÄù said Sgt. Jim Nystrom, supervisor of the bait bike program.

He said the thief cut the lock off the decoy bike, which was hooked up to a rack outside of Middlebrook Hall, and rode off behind the building âÄî where there is a blind spot in the UniversityâÄôs video surveillance system. But the police were able to stop the man at the Rarig Center and arrest him thanks to constant updates from the bikeâÄôs GPS unit.

Nystrom said upgrades in technology have made the program more effective. Before the upgrades, officers had to sit near enough to see the bike and could only leave the bike out for hours at a time, he said. Now his team is able to leave the decoy out for longer than a week unattended.

Courtney Wright, a University student, had her bike stolen in early September. She said the number of bike thefts this year is unnecessarily high.

Nystrom attributed the programâÄôs previous lack of success to a lack of resources and a steep learning curve for using the technology.

âÄúIt wasnâÄôt always given the attention we were able to give it,âÄù he said.

At first, the program relied solely on âÄúgeo-fencingâÄù âÄî a technology that uses a GPS unit and a defined boundary to send out alerts when the unit leaves the area. Nystrom said only using the geo-fence was frustrating at times and criminals could sometimes get âÄúa good 20 minute jump on [officers].âÄù

The program lost a bait bike because of this, Nystrom said.

âÄúYou learn from this,âÄù he said. âÄúYou make the adjustments as you go along.âÄù

But significant upgrades made earlier this year are the reason the program may start yielding results, Nystrom said.

The bait bike still carries GPS technology, but with an added vibration sensor that alerts the police when the bike is moved.

Nystrom and his officers receive text messages whenever the bike is touched. When the alerts go out, security cameras in the area pan immediately to the bikeâÄôs location, catching the potential thief on video.

Since the bike is usually parked in a crowded area, the police get texts often, but Nystrom said his team has learned how to tell if a crime is actually occurring.

Since early July, the police have arrested 10 people for bike theft. Most of the arrests were thefts that occurred on the same rack as the bait bike, and were caught because vibrations jostled the bike, triggering the camera to look in the direction of the crime.

University of Wisconsin-Madison police Sgt. Aaron Chapin said his department runs a similar program that has seen results since its inception.

The program resulted in 28 arrests in its first year in 2008. Since then, Chapin said police have reported fewer bike thefts each year.

Chapin said his department focused on raising awareness of bike theft through canvassing the campus: handing out flyers and stickers. He said since rolling out the program, victims of theft are reporting the crimes more often, which is necessary for his department to charge suspects.

Nystrom said the thief from Sept. 24 will be charged with the theft of another bike that he stole and ditched shortly before stealing the bait bike. Police are able to charge him because the victim came forward and reported the theft.