Philadelphia Cops Using Decoy Bikes to Catch Thieves

A new "bait bike" program is cracking down on bicycle theft

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Is this bicycle ripe for the taking, or a clever ruse by police?

Fed up with rampant bike theft in their city, Philadelphia police are trying a new tactic: reeling in crooks with unlocked “bait” bicycles conspicuously placed around town.

Philly.com reports that cops in The City of Brotherly Love are having some success with a classic sting operation-style strategy. Officers place an unattended bicycle in public and stake out the location. Then, if someone tries to make off with the decoy bike, policemen pounce and take the would-be thief on a different sort of ride than they were expecting.

The new plan appears to be effective — bait bike stings have already netted over a dozen arrests in 2013. However, while bikers have responded positively to the increased police attention, some complain the police’s approach only catches petty crooks rather than taking down organized bike theft rings. Instead of immediately arresting thieves once they begin pedaling away, critics suggest placing GPS devices in the decoys and then tracing the perpetrator back to their base of operations.

Using bait bikes to nab thieves is hardly a revolutionary concept in law enforcement, and the idea has even crossed national borders. Baitbike.com, a site owned by a vehicle tracking systems company, chronicles bait bike stings going back to 2002, and they’ve  been employed everywhere from Wisconsin to the UK. TV news crews have also gotten in on the act, with both Dateline NBC and Inside Edition using decoy bicycles to catch thieves and then shame them on camera.

The strategy’s longevity appears to stem from its effectiveness. Not only does the plan take thieves off the street who’ve been caught in the act, but The Guardian speculates that robbers are deterred by the prospect that any given bike could be under police surveillance. Bicycle thefts dropped by 45% when British transport police started using bait bikes in a cambridge rail station, and a similar program in London caused a 33% decline.

This type of clever policing is especially important in preventing bicycle theft since, at least in America, the crime is currently all but risk-free. In a short documentary for the New York Times, filmmaker Casey Neistat documented his increasingly obvious attempts to “steal” his own bike. Even when ripping off the bicycle’s lock with a crowbar, directly in front of a police station, Neistat was able to ride off unmolested. According to the Priceonomics blog’s amazing economic analysis of the bike theft industry, even on the off-chance a thief is apprehended, they’ll probably get off with just a slap on the wrist. This combined lack of enforcement and weak punishment gives bike thieves little incentive to cease their illicit ways, but more ambitious policing — like the bike bait program — may have a shot at changing these criminals’ calculus.