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Cover Story

June 28, 2012
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Stop thief
 

By Chad Taylor

Stealing a bicycle in Des Moines is easy. Getting caught? That’s another story.

Bicycles recovered by the DMPD come downtown and wait to either be reclaimed or sold at auction. Photo by Chad Taylor

I’d never stolen a bike before. I wasn’t even completely sure how to go about it, but I’d been told that it wasn’t that difficult. So I went downtown on an oppressively hot afternoon and scoped out places in the East Village. I’d found my target — a dark brown fixed gear — chained up outside Zombie Burger. Waiting for a moment when the coast was as clear as it was going to get, I hefted a bag packed with bolt cutters in it over my shoulder and headed across the street.

Over the past eight years, the city of Des Moines has averaged 314 bicycle thefts a year, according to statistics from the Des Moines Police Department.

“When I first looked at those numbers, they seemed low,” said DMPD’s Public Information Officer, Sgt. Chris Scott. “But it’s important to remember, those are just the thefts that get reported.”

The reason for Sgt. Scott’s surprise becomes evident as he walks me out behind the police department building to the bike storage pen.

“It looks like they might have had an auction recently, so it’s not as full,” he said.

The pen probably contains 150 bikes.

“Most of these are from people calling (DMPD) and saying, ‘Hey, I woke up this morning, and there’s a bike on my lawn,’ ” he said. “We keep them here until the pen is full, then have an auction. And even then, it’s like, ‘Here’s a lot of 15 bikes for $10.’ People just don’t want them.”

Most of the bikes in the pen are in pretty rough shape. It’s hard to know how many of them were actually stolen from their owners and how many were simply abandoned. But I also made out some pretty decent ones as well: a couple road bikes, a hybrid here and there. Those are the ones that will sell at auction. The rest of them…

“It’s a pretty good argument for registering your bike,” Sgt. Scott says, as we looked over the pen.

The idea first struck me after watching a YouTube video that had been posted to Reddit.com. A man named Casey Neistat, with a little help from the New York Times, conducted a social experiment where he locked his bike up in various spots around New York City. He then returned to his bike a short time later with various tools and attempted to “steal” it while counting witnesses and seeing if anyone would question or stop him. Over the course of the four-minute video, we see Neistat’s bike freed with a hacksaw, bolt cutters, a crow bar and eventually an angle grinder. In three of the four scenes, Neistat and his helper make off with the “stolen” bicycle without as much as a single passerby intervening. The fourth attempt — a nine-minute session with the power tool — is eventually stopped by police. The thing that interested me was not the experiment in and of itself, or even the results. What caught my eye were the comments from Reddit users.

“Well sure,” everyone seemed to be saying. “But that’s New York City. New Yorkers don’t get involved for anything.”

Was that true? Was Neistat’s success (or failure, depending on how you look at it) the result of New Yorkers’ legendary uncaring streak? If so, what would happen here? We Midwesterners pride ourselves in being more polite and more socially interactive than our east coast brethren. So would a bike thief fare any differently in Nollen Plaza than in Times Square?

I decided to find out. With the help of a friend, I recreated Neistat’s experiment as best I could here in Des Moines. Over the course of two days, I selected four different spots around town to lock up my bike and attempted to steal it to see what would happen.

“Most people aren’t the kind who are going to stop and get directly involved,” said Urbandale Police Department Detective Dwight Taylor. (Full disclosure: He’s also my dad.) “You might get some people who see you, but most of them will probably just call the police, rather than try and stop you themselves.”

But that seems to go against the whole “nice Midwesterner” mythos.

“If someone sees you breaking into a house or a car, they’ll usually do something,” Taylor said. “But a bike just isn’t something people think too much about.”

Like Sgt. Scott, Detective Taylor recommends registering your bicycle with the city.

“When we pick up a bike, Property Division compares the serial number (against the) bike registry to see if there are any hits,” he said. “Most of the time there aren’t, so we hold on to them, and twice a year (Urbandale Police Department) will sell them at auction.”

What about bikes that don’t get sold?

“Well, I’ve never seen it happen. But if a bike didn’t sell for some reason, we’d probably just give it to the disposal units.”

This wasn’t a perfect experiment. For starters, just because of the nature of what I was trying to test, I stole my bike in a decidedly un-bike-thief-like fashion. Each location was fairly public and, for the most part, I was in broad daylight and relatively exposed. However, using the best Vizzini from “Princess Bride” Sicilian logic I could muster, stealing a bike in broad daylight and in full view of people turned out to be the perfect plan for a bike thief, because, who would expect it?

I brought a friend with me — “accomplice” seems like a bad word to use — who locked the bike up at each location then took cover nearby while I made each attempt, in a game effort to videotape the results. After spending some time with Sgt. Scott, laying out the times and places where I intended to be and what I would be wearing so that DMPD dispatch would know not to respond to calls about me, I packed up my equipment and was ready to do this thing.

Attempt No. 1: Zombie Burger, 3:30 p.m.

A half-hour prior, my “accomplice” pedaled my bike over to Zombie Burger’s bike racks, chained it up and walked away. After cooling my heels for a bit in a shop around the corner, I grabbed my backpack and headed off across Grand Avenue.

When I got to the bike, I was momentarily at a loss as to how to proceed. I wanted to strike a balance between looking suspicious enough that people might think it was not my bike, but not so overly suspicious as to make them think I was just nuts. I looked around a bit like I imagined a hardened criminal would do. You know, always one eye out for “The Man.” Once I was sure the street was free of the 5-0, I dropped to one knee and pulled the bolt cutters out of my backpack.

Before I made the first cut, I took a quick look around. It was sunny out, and I couldn’t really see into Zombie Burger through the glare on the window, so I had no way of knowing if anyone in there was watching me. There were a couple of cars stopped at the light, waiting to turn right onto Grand. For a moment, I thought one of the drivers was looking at me. But after a second, I realized that she was just talking to her passenger. They drove off.

I’m not going to lie here: When I made those two snips and the chain fell to the ground with a satisfying “clink!,” it was a little exciting. Look at me! I’m stealing the hell out of this bike! I pulled the bike off the rack and took two steps back before I realized that there was somebody sitting on the sidewalk behind one of the brick pillars next to the bike rack. It was a guy in his 20s, in a white T-shirt, reading a book. As the chain dragged across the sidewalk, he looked up at me. His eyes lowered to the bolt cutter in my hand and back up to my face. Playing it cool, I slowly slid the bolt cutters into my backpack and zipped it up, maintaining eye contact. After another second, he looked back down at his book. I shrugged, hopped on the bike and pedaled away.

Reuniting with my accomplice a few blocks away, we broke down the scene. I counted four people who either did — or could have — seen me. My accomplice offered his insights.

“There was a girl who got out of a truck and started to cross the street,” he said. “I thought she was going to talk to you, so I tried to zoom out on the camera to film her walking up to you but wound up zooming in instead and got a close-up of her butt.”

So there’s that.

Total time: three minutes. Witnesses: five.

Attempt No. 2: Java Joes, 4:30 p.m.

Once again my accomplice pedaled the bike up to the pre-determined spot, locked it down and walked away. I grabbed a seat at the Royal Mile and waited a bit, putting some time between the two of us so it didn’t look too suspicious. Finally, I loaded up my stuff and stepped back out onto the sidewalk. My accomplice chained my bike up to a parking meter outside Java Joes. With the coffee shop’s big windows and all the Court Avenue foot traffic, I figured we would have had a much better chance of someone noticing me and putting an end to these shenanigans. I walked over to the bike and did my “criminal stare” again. Coast was clear. Out came the bolt cutters, and I made the first clip. I looked up, and there was a group of three people — two women and a man — walking toward me from Court Avenue. This was it! I tried to act cool, slipped the bolt cutters under my backpack and pretended like I was fiddling with the lock. But I had the bolt cutters in my hand when I first noticed the group, so I know they saw what I was up to. As they got closer, I could feel them looking down at me. I braced for the questions to start.

They walked past and crossed the street, apparently heading for some pizza at Fong’s.

What the hell? I pulled the bolt cutters back out, made the second clip, freed the bike and pedaled off. I counted six more people who could — or should — have seen what I was doing. Once again, nobody stopped me. However, upon further reflection, I’m willing to entertain the possibility that at least some of them decided against saying anything because my accomplice was 6’3” and — wanting for any clear hiding place — was standing about 90 feet away trying to look casual as he stuck a video camera out from behind a parked white Escalade. I need to know more ninjas.

Total time: four minutes. Total witnesses: nine.

Attempt No. 3: Quick Trip, 6th and University, 8:55 p.m.

My accomplice and I sat in the car for 20 minutes, looking at the QT parking lot.

“It occurs to me,” I said, “that this is an awesome way to get my ass kicked.”

“Yeah.”

We called it a night.

On the surface, other than the fact that it’s really easy to do, there seems to be little incentive for bike theft. Only the highest end bikes have any serious resale potential, and the avenues for unloading them are hardly thief-friendly.

“Everything that we get in, whether it’s a bike or an Xbox game, has to be held for 15 days,” said Matt DePhilips of The Pawn Store on Douglas. “We get (the seller’s) driver’s license number and address. We take the serial number of every bike we buy, and enter it into our database, and then into the (DMPD’s) database.”

The DMPD has a sub-division of its property unit devoted just to pawn shops. If an item comes back as stolen, the seller’s information is passed along to the police and the appropriate charges are filed. In the case of a bicycle, those charges are anywhere from a simple misdemeanor for a cheap, box-store special to second-degree theft — a class D felony — for higher-end racing bikes. Those bikes are then returned to their owners, and the only people who lose out are the pawn shops themselves.

“We’re out,” DePhilips said, speaking about the money paid for the stolen property. “If it’s a high ticket item, sometimes we’ll try and go after the person, but it’s like getting blood from a turnip. We’ve got a guy who’s in jail for selling us stolen guns. Every month he sends us a check for 39 cents.”

Day Two

My accomplice wasn’t available to help me with the second day of my project, but that was OK because I had a brilliant plan. I loaded up my backpack and bike and drove out to Gray’s Lake. My course of action was thus: I’ll chain up my bike at one end of the lake and then take a couple of leisurely laps. In the 40 minutes or so it takes to get around twice, nobody around the area where my bike is chained will recognize that I’m the owner. But just to make sure, before I return to the bike I will pull a different shirt out of my backpack, change, take off my hat and glasses, and — presto — I will be a whole new person. (I am a criminal genius and a master of disguise.) I returned to my bike, heady with self-realization, and went in for my first attempt.

Just like downtown, nobody seemed particularly interested. A couple of people saw me kneel down in front of the bike, and I’m pretty sure one person saw me take the bolt cutters out of my backpack. But when I clipped the chain, nobody even looked up. I hopped on the bike and pedaled to the far side of the lake. Once I was there, I hung out for a bit, then chained up the bike again and took another couple of laps. Then I changed outfits again, and repeated the process.

There was a mother with two young children playing in the grass about 30 feet from where my bike was chained, and I kept an eye on them as I opened the backpack and went to work. The little boy watched me intently as I clipped the chain. He laughed and raised a chubby hand to point as I let the broken chain drop to the ground. Mom seemed not to notice. I pedaled back to the car and headed home.

What did I learn? Only things that I guess should already be common sense. It’s astoundingly easy to steal a bike. If you own a bicycle, get it registered. If it’s stolen, report it to the police as quickly as possible. Auctioned bikes are unclaimed bikes, and unclaimed bikes are unregistered bikes. Invest in a good bike lock. For speed and cost, I was securing my bike with links of chain, but you should spend the cash on something harder, and secure it around multiple points.

“The frame is priority No. 1, and the tires are No. 2,” said Matt Winter at Bike World in Urbandale. “If you’ve got a cable and can wrap it around the frame, then through the spokes of the front and back wheels and attach it to the bike rack, that’s going to be most secure.”

A 10mm cable lock will run you about $22, and a solid steel U-lock can be had for about $10-$15 more, depending on size. Many lock manufacturers offer bike replacement guarantees up to a certain dollar amount in the case of a theft. No lock is completely theft-proof, but they’ll almost all provide security from the bolt cutters I was using.

The final irony was that as I was finishing this piece, I went back downtown to stage a few photos to accompany the article. As I sat outside Zombie Burger with my camera and my broken link of chain, I felt a shadow creep over me. I looked up over my shoulder at a man standing behind me.

“Hey,” he said. “What are you doing there?” CV



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