Bike thefts surge on University of Illinois campus, but online reporting system aids police investigations

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The University of Illinois Police Department operates from the Public Safety Building, 1110 W. Springfield Ave., Urbana.

Persistent bike thefts continue to plague the campus community, with reported incidents surging over the past two academic years.

Between Aug. 1 and Nov. 13 last fall, 85 bike thefts were reported, an increase from 69 reports the previous fall in the same period. There were only 18 reports in the spring 2022 semester. Since Jan. 2022, 255 thefts have been reported.

This surge in reporting can be partially attributed to the University of Illinois Police Department’s online reporting system, according to department spokesperson Patrick Wade.

The online reporting option, initially a response to the pandemic, has streamlined the reporting process for thefts. Traditionally, reporting a crime was required to be in person with a police officer. However, the pandemic necessitated a shift toward alternative, digital reporting methods.

Wade said the increased accessibility has contributed to the uptick in reported incidents.

“We’re seeing more of those lower-level crimes,” Wade said. “It was honestly easier for us too.”

Wade said bicycle theft is not unique to the University of Illinois campus and it is a widespread societal issue faced by communities across the country.

The most common streets where the thefts occurred include Green Street, First Street and Peabody Drive, according to police data acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Solving bike theft cases remains a lower priority for the department. Wade emphasized the department’s prioritization of violent crimes over property crimes.

However, without the presence of leads or suspects, many bike thefts remain unsolved.

“If we can immediately identify that this case has a very, very low likelihood of solvability … that’ll put it straight to the bottom of the pile,” Wade said.

Wade pointed out that evidence, especially security camera footage, can elevate the priority of a case. Despite the hurdles, he said bike theft reports get solved at a higher rate than in many city police departments.

“Cases do get solved. I wouldn’t say on bikes that it happens all that often. But I would say probably … five to 10% of bike theft reports get solved,” he said.

To actively deter and apprehend bike thieves, the university police have experimented with anti-theft bike technology, commonly known as bait bikes.

These are bicycles owned by the police department equipped with GPS trackers. When these bait bikes are stolen, the GPS trackers alert law enforcement, leading to potential arrests. While this initiative has yielded some apprehensions, Wade said it may not have significantly impacted the larger issue of bike theft across campus.

Beyond the campus borders, collaborative efforts come into play. The university department works with neighboring police departments to retrieve stolen property.

“If we have a good idea of where that stolen property is, we can get a search warrant and go get it,” Wade said. This proactive approach allows the department to take swift action when there is sufficient evidence or leads that point to the location of the stolen bicycle.

He said that during campaigns focused on traffic safety, the proper way to lock a bicycle is often emphasized. Using a high-quality U-lock, coupled with a cable lock, is recommended to deter thieves who often target bikes with weak or easily removable locks.

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