DETROIT—Bicycles are an inescapable part of the scenery around Detroit’s Wayne State University. Walking through the neighborhood, it’s not unusual to see them propped up against light posts or stacked into campus bike racks. Students ride bikes to class, and local residents hop on them to get to work, run errands and check out local music spots. This very pervasiveness, however, makes them ideal targets for thieves.
Regrettably, bike theft is a common crime around the university. Lt. David Scott, who runs the Wayne State Police Department’s crime prevention section, told Mode Shift this is true of all college campuses.
“They like anything else are an item of value,” he said. ”And when somebody sees an item of value they want bad enough, they don’t have any problem trying to acquire it for their own use.”
Wayne State Police officers are commissioned through the City of Detroit and have city-wide jurisdiction, but their patrols generally stick to the neighborhood surrounding the university. This area roughly corresponds to the city’s Midtown district, which is located between the Ford, Chrysler, Fisher and Lodge expressways.
Lt. Scott suggests bike owners write down the make, model, serial number and any identifying marks of their vehicles. In addition, he encourages them to make use of the department’s free registration system.
Seventy bicycles have been stolen so far this year in Midtown and a total of 234 citywide, according to statistics released to Mode Shift by the WSU Police on Aug. 5. Of those reported in Midtown, 55 are listed as larcenies, or simple thefts. The others are linked to robberies, burglaries and other crimes.
This information, which comes from the Detroit Police Crime Incident database, was obtained by Dr. David Martin, a researcher with the WSU Center for Urban Studies. Lt. Scott says to his knowledge, none of the bikes reported stolen in Midtown have been recovered.
“They are sporadic,” he said of the thefts. “We can run some months with none. Some months we might have three or four. I would say on average maybe one a week, which may not seem like an epidemic, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way to somebody who’s had their bike stolen.”
According to the FBI's most recent yearly Uniform Crime Report statistics, more than 189,000 bicycle thefts took place nationwide in 2011, up 4.2 percent from 2010.
Henry Villerot, a detective with Wayne State's police department, said the bike thefts he deals with are crimes of opportunity.
“The opportunity may be a bike that’s not locked. The opportunity may be enhanced by the person carrying a set of bolt cutters,” he said. “We’ve had portable battery powered tools that would be able to cut like a reciprocating saw. … There’s persons that carry wrenches or pliers, and they remove everything but the wheel, if the wheel is locked down. You name it, they’ve done it.”
As for what’s stolen, there’s no real pattern. High-end models are just as likely to be snatched as $50 bargain bikes. What happens to the vehicles afterwards doesn’t fit any particular blueprint either.
“It might be sold by one person and literally driven down two or three blocks and offered to another person,” said Villerot. “Some of the bikes have been taken to shops and just put out and sold, because the shop owner didn’t know they were stolen. A very few times a person has stole it for the parts themselves. It pretty much runs the gamut.”
Typically, those arrested for these crimes are the people selling the bikes. When a bike is reported stolen to the department, police will often pay a visit to known bikes thieves or locations where stolen bikes have been previously sold or pawned.
Tracking down and verifying a stolen bicycle can be difficult for police officers, though, as owners often don’t keep track of their bicycle’s serial number or other relevant information. Lt. Scott suggests bike owners write down the make, model, serial number and any identifying marks of their vehicles. In addition, he encourages them to make use of the department’s free registration system.
Scott also recommends bicycle owners park their vehicles in places with lots of people around and use common sense when locking up. He’s heard of people using all kinds of things -- even a dog leash -- to secure their bikes. His advice is to steer away from cheap combination padlocks and invest in a quality lock.
“People will secure a several hundred dollar bike with a four dollar lock and wonder why my bike got stolen,” he said. “The thief generally being a lazy person wants to go to the least amount of effort for the maximum amount of gain. They’ll pick a bike that’s either lying up against a tree and not locked up or secured with some cheap lock or some cheap thing that’s very easy to defeat.”
Hal Grades your Bike Locking
Check out this video of Hal Razul, famous mechanic at Bicycyle Habitat in Manhattan, as he grades bike locking styles throughout the city.
To register your bike with the WSU police, take it to the department’s record section Monday through Friday during regular business hours, at 6050 Cass Ave.