The Bicycle Thief 

Someone stole my bike. Here's what I learned.

Somehow, my hands were steady as I typed. "Hey, my bike has been stolen from in front of Boise Weekly." It was July 25—my birthday—and I had left my black Surly Cross-Check in front of the office, expecting to hop back on it within five minutes to chase down an assignment. By the time I returned, it was gone.

My first moves I knew almost by heart. I called Idaho Mountain Touring, the downtown outdoor gear shop where I'd purchased the bike, which has a record of its serial number—"I really hope you get your bike back, man," the clerk on the other end of the line commiserated—and after hanging up, I dialed non-emergency police dispatch. Finally, I sat down in front of my computer and stared for a moment at Facebook's prompt: "What's on your mind, Harrison?"

I started to type.

What happened next was a revelation. I don't own a car, and I get everywhere by bike. Within hours, my Facebook post had been shared dozens of times, I had received an offer of a loaner bike and some people had started a collection for me to buy a new ride. The sympathy and support of people in Boise for bicyclists crashed against my feelings of frustration and violation.

My Surly had always attracted some attention. It cuts a handsome profile, if I say so myself, and there are plenty of Surly riders out there for whom fellow owners are fellow travelers. These include BPD bike officers, who also ride black Surlys. My police report got their attention in a different way: This time, my bike was stolen property.

"Would you like charges filed?"

On the phone, the officer from police dispatch asked about the make and model of my bike, and about any other distinguishing features. It has a silver rack and silver fenders, I said, with blue bar tape. I could provide a photo and a serial number. Then, the dispatcher asked me something I hadn't anticipated.

"Would you like charges filed?"

The Surly was worth well over the $1,000 minimum value required to prosecute someone for grand theft, a felony punishable by a $1,000-$10,000 fine or 1-20 years in prison. Suddenly, it mattered what I wanted to happen to the person who took my bike. I paused for a moment as scenarios played out in my mind. A homeless person could be the culprit. Did I want to have fines imposed on someone who might never be able to pay, or send someone to prison who would be better served by some sort of social assistance?

The prospect that I was the victim of a more organized criminal, however, only further agitated me. In my mind's eye, this shifty crook had absconded with my bike to a garage or the back of a van by the time I was on the phone with police dispatch. I imagined a team of hardened miscreants falling on my Surly to tear it to pieces and fence its parts.

I told the police officer that no, I didn't want to press charges—I just wanted my bike back.

As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. According to Ed Fritz, the crime prevention supervisor for the BPD, stolen bikes range from $50 yard sale rides to $5,000 racing and mountain bikes. What the majority of them have in common is that they were left unlocked and unattended—sometimes for as briefly as a few seconds.

"They are crimes of opportunity," Fritz said. "You can have a great impact by taking the necessary means to reduce that opportunity. It's about how you lock up your bike, where you put your bike."

A good start for protecting a bike is purchasing a U-lock, which is resistant to bolt cutters and hacksaws. They're available at pretty much every bike shop in town and a good one can be had for $30-$70. The next step is to register one's bike with the police, and have its serial number and a photo on file.

Though I had a U-lock, my bike's serial number and a photo, I'd left the Surly unlocked in public, hence my call to police dispatch. My call triggered an active investigation (it was, after all, a case of grand theft) and an electronic dragnet. If my Surly turned up at a pawn shop or if it caught the attention of a patrolling officer, it would raise a flag.

In the last year, that electronic dragnet has become many times more powerful, thanks to a partnership between BPD and Bike Index, a searchable database that logs missing bikes by make and model, serial number, the date stolen, location and more.

Bike Index replaced a system that was similar in many respects, and in the beginning, that first system performed its duties admirably. Police could enter essential information about the stolen property—its serial number, color, distinctive features or accessories—and pair it with the victim's contact info. In theory, when police recovered a bike, they could look up the phone number of the owner, give that person a call and facilitate a reunion. There were two things its designers and users hadn't accounted for, though: time and volume.

"It was successful in its time, but as it grew and more bikes got entered, the data wasn't as current as it should be," Fritz said.

Bikes stolen in the 1990s would turn up sometimes decades after their owners reported the thefts. By that time, original owners may have moved to another city or state, or changed essential contact information like phone numbers or email addresses.

The backlog of property and evidence continues. Corbett Auctions, the Ada County Sheriff's and Boise Police departments' auctioneer, held an auction in October 2017 at its facility in Kuna. According to its website, 350-400 bikes from local law enforcement were available.

The first bike tracking system suffered from another, invisible shortcoming: Its scope was limited to Boise and surrounding areas. A bike stolen in the City of Trees may have been flagged as missing by BPD, but in Salt Lake City, or, in one example Fritz gave, South Carolina, it would have been, by all appearances, just like any other bike.

In August 2017, BPD partnered with Bike Index. Though the BPD and Bike Index platforms operate on the same principle, Fritz likened the new system to social media, complete with bike profiles managed by their owners. BPD has its own account and access to some added features, but in the end, Bike Index takes some of the onus off the police for managing information about stolen bikes.

"We're giving up some of the control," Fritz said. "When we find a bike, we still have a serial number and we can contact [the owner] by email. ... You own the information. That's what it comes down to."

Bike Index broke BPD's searches for missing bikes into territory beyond the Treasure Valley. According to its website, it has 540 partnerships with communities around the country, and people search it tens of thousands of times every day. It bills itself as the most widely used bicycle registration service in the world, and contains profiles for more than 177,000 bikes, all searchable by numerous categories.

"If my bike gets stolen today in Boise and someone in Portland comes across my bike, they can link it back up to me," Fritz said.

Back in Black Surly

The day after my bike was stolen, I got on a plane bound for San Diego, California, to attend a conference. In recent months, dockless bike-share companies like Lime and Ofo have released thousands of bikes onto the streets there, sometimes parked neatly and conveniently along the walkways near the harbor. Other times, they had been tossed into bushes or stacked in small piles in the right of way.

Depending on one's perspective, those abandoned bikes either fulfilled the promise of the bicycle's incredible democratizing power or were part of a massive boondoggle. Every one of them I saw reminded me of how far I was from the search for my Surly, and that every passing moment made its recovery less likely. A friend observed that I had begun to peer at riders and bikes locked at racks with an acute look of longing and hurt.

The situation didn't improve upon my return to Boise. I had started to think about a replacement when, on Aug. 3, almost exactly a week after the Surly disappeared, I received a phone call from Zach Powell, a Boise Police officer who said he had found a bike matching its description. Someone had cable-locked it to a chain-link fence close to the corner of 14th Street and Grand Avenue near the River of Life Men's Shelter, and within half an hour, Powell had clipped it free from the fence and brought it to me at the Boise Weekly offices.

click to enlarge - The Boise Police Department's police report for Boise Weekly Staff Writer Harrison Berry's stolen bicycle. -  - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • The Boise Police Department's police report for Boise Weekly Staff Writer Harrison Berry's stolen bicycle.

Later, in his police report, Powell was more specific. He had noticed my bike because "Surlys are known to me as a unique, higher-end bicycle that has a loyal fan base with commuters and cyclocross racers for their durable and adaptable frame sets." The bike had been locked to the fence in a way that "appeared odd for this higher-value bicycle." Bike Index played a small part when Powell ran the Surly's serial number to find out if it had been reported as stolen. He called Idaho Mountain Touring, where he talked with the very salesman who sold me the bike, and who confirmed I was the owner. The thief hasn't been found, so no charges have been filed.

It would be dishonest of me to call the feeling of seeing my bike again "relief." Instead, the more closely I looked it over the more I felt like I'd been personally disrespected. The Surly was in good, but not great, shape when Powell rolled it into the office. It had two flat tires, the bar tape had been lightly scuffed and the chain needed grease. Whoever had taken it and cabled it to the fence had not loved the Surly as I had. I thanked Powell profusely for bringing it back to me and waited for my mood to improve.

Later, while conducting repairs on it at home, I caught a glimpse into my bike's journey: Goatheads, bits of glass and a staple had become embedded in the tires. Mud and burrs clung to the treads. Whoever took it from me a week earlier had ridden through hazardous and rough terrain.

Hunching over the tires' deflated inner tubes to apply patches in the August sun, I began to sympathize with the bike thief. Boise must look like a very different place to someone who rides a bike through brambles on the way to a homeless shelter than to someone who rides it to get to work, run errands and visit friends.

Scrubbing the dirt off the Surley's frame and wiping excess grease off its freshly oiled chain, I mulled an idea: I'd barely realized how important my bike was to my connection to the City of Trees until someone took it from me, and for a week, it was someone else's connection.

Only then did I feel relief. Please lock up your bikes.

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