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
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
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
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 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
“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
“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
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,
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.”
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.”
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
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
“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
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?”