April 8, 2016

Bikes stolen on campus seldom recovered

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Matt Crosby, manager of Neutral Cycles, works on a bike by the map of bike thefts in the shop on campus in Champaign on Monday, March 28, 2016.

Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess.org

Matt Crosby, manager of Neutral Cycles, works on a bike by the map of bike thefts in the shop on campus in Champaign on Monday, March 28, 2016.

If a bike is stolen from a University of Illinois student on the Urbana-Champaign campus, there is little chance the bike will be recovered.

In fact, 95 bikes worth about $27,000 in total were reported stolen in 2015 and only 16 — about $3,600 worth — were recovered, according to university police.

Sean Neumann

Flyer asking for information on a stolen bike in Champaign-Urbana.

Those figures mirror numbers for each year since 2013. University police figures show that a total of 274 bikes worth about $78,500 in total were reported stolen over the past three years. Of them, 216 bikes worth about $68,000 in total were not recovered.

As of late February 2016, 11 bikes worth about $3,800 in total were reported stolen before warm weather has arrived. Only one bike worth $100 has been recovered.

Law enforcement officials emphasized that these are only reported thefts. They said many times bike thefts are not reported.

Lt. Brown points to where you can find the serial number on most bicycles

Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess.org

Lt. Brown points to where you can find the serial number on most bicycles. Photo by Darrell Hoemann

“We may find a bike someplace, but if we have no way to link it to somebody, then we can’t return it,” University Police Lieutenant John Brown said.  “In order to place that information into the national computer system for stolen property, you have to have a serial number. The chances of recovering a stolen bike without that information is very small.”

Brown said “95 percent of the time” victims of bike theft don’t have the necessary information about their bike to help police track it down. This includes not only having the serial number but registering the bike with police and sharing the bike’s identifying characteristics.

“It’s a very difficult crime to catch someone, unless we catch them in the act or the victim actually sees someone on their bikes,” said Lieutenant Robert Rea, who has been supervisor for the Champaign Police Department since 2005 and reviews bike theft reports.

Lt. Rea said sometimes police will recover a bike originally stolen from campus abandoned somewhere off campus – his assumption is that someone steals the bike for a one-time use to get from one place to another.

“Maybe (the thief is) down on campus and want to go to some other location in the city of Champaign and they see a bike sitting there, unattended,” Lt. Rea said. “They swipe the bike, ride it to the location and just leave it.”

Currently 2,245 bikes are registered in the University of Illinois’ identification system, which dates back to 2012. But some bikes in the system could no longer be on campus or in use, officials say.

There could be as many as 8,000 bikes currently on campus, University Transportation Demand Management Coordinator Stacey DeLorenzo said. But Miles Thomas, a founder of the Champaign-Urbana bicycle shop Neutral Cycle, said there’s no way of knowing the real number.

“How many bikes are there in the Champaign-Urbana area? I don’t know, thousands,” Thomas said. “If anybody can accurately estimate that number, I want to know.”

Neutral Cycle provides online information about bike crimes and maps them. The map shows that most theft occurs at campus locations such as the Seibel Center and the Illini Union where many bikes are parked together.

Brown said the University Police Department’s biggest education initiative occurs during freshman orientations. Officers tell students and their parents to register their bikes and talk about the possibility of theft on campus.

But Kevin Stillwell, a staff writer and editor for Neutral Cycle’s website, said he believes the University can improve on educating students about bicycle theft.

Darrell Hoemann/CU-CitizenAccess.org

University Police Lieutenant John Brown with a couple of the recovered bikes at the University of Illinois police evidence storage.

“I’d say that they’re definitely moving in the right direction, but that we have a long way to go,” Stillwell said of the university. “And I say we because it’s an issue that extends beyond UIUC to all of (Champaign-Urbana).”

The biggest catalyst of campus bike theft, Stillwell said, is students not properly locking their bikes, a topic he researched in 2014 for Neutral Cycle.

His research found 52 percent of bikes parked at dorms were locked with cables locks – a type of lock Stillwell has said is easy to cut through and remove — while 47 percent used cable locks on the quad.

“What we’re really trying to encourage people to do is have a pre-thought about the fact that their bike may get stolen,” Thomas said. “Most people don’t think about it until it’s too late.”