The Philadelphia Police Department revealed this week that it was employing a so-called “bait bike” to nab bicycle thieves in the city. The strategy is simple: Leave an unlocked bike on a busy street, wait for someone to take it, and jump in for an arrest.
Since the story broke, the program has received accolades from just about everyone who’s been asked to comment on it—mostly bike enthusiasts like myself, for whom the prospect of losing your ride is something you grapple with every time you turn the key on your Kryptonite. Yet I can’t bring myself to join the cheering chorus.
As an avid cyclist whose wife recently lost a $2,000 Trek road bike due to a hasty lock job, I know as well as anyone that Philadelphia has a bike-theft problem. In the last six years, nearly 11,000 Philadelphians have reported similar thefts, while countless others have decided it’s not worth the effort. I’ve had two bikes stolen myself. One was taken right out of my hands by two thugs after they sucker-punched me at Broad and South streets in the early 1990s; another was stolen from the alley next to my house just last year (I reported the first, didn’t bother with the second).
I have no love for scumbags who ride off with other people’s property. But I don’t believe for a second the problem of bike theft will get solved by staging publicity stunts disguised as police work. Sure, orchestrating a theft where one would not have otherwise occurred with the intention of making a single arrest may offer a momentary surge of karmic satisfaction. And it gives police the opportunity to look like heroes to the city’s growing cyclist community—PR the department badly needs; but at the end of the day, the net effect on bike thefts in the city will be exactly zilch (unless you count the bait bike itself, which I’m guessing no one actually rides anyway). That’s because these kinds of programs—which come dangerously close to entrapment (in spirit, if not in law)—are exponentially more likely to net simple opportunists than serial bike thieves.
Philly isn’t exactly breaking new ground with its bait bike program. In fact, the city’s effort is much less sophisticated that those employed in other municipalities, which typically rely on GPS to track and catch thieves. However all these programs have one thing in common: They disproportionately target poor and minority communities.
Indeed, crime opportunity (or “rational choice”) theorists draw a strong correlation between poverty and impulsive property crime—a synergy that grows even stronger the more “petty” the offense and the more readily available the target. What that means, put simply, is that if you present an absurdly easy opportunity for a petty property crime you’re probably not going to nab the Al Capone of stolen Schwinns. You’re going to get the kid on his way home from school, or the unemployed middle-aged janitor, or the homeless drug addict, who heard opportunity knock and decided to listen. A bait bike is to policing as a .38 and a barrel full of trout is to fishing. You may put dinner on the table but you’re not going to make a dent in the lake.
You’re probably asking, so what? After all, these people are taking something that doesn’t belong to them. That makes them criminals even if police had to play a little dirty to get them into cuffs. That’s true. And police work doesn’t need to be fair. But it should at least be effective. So what can we expect to gain from Philly’s bait bike program? Will it ultimately deter serial bike theft? No more than putting vials of crack in the street and arresting the first person who picks them up will win the drug war.
For one thing, any pro thief worth his or her salt knows about the bait program by now and wouldn’t touch an unlocked bike with a 10-foot pole. Sure, if they wait long enough police will make an arrest every time they put a bait bike out, but what’s the point? If the bait bike program has any impact at all it will be to teach a small number of opportunistic thieves to never again touch an unlocked bike sitting on a city street—which is something they will probably never see again anyway. Meanwhile city taxpayers foot the bill for catching, arresting, processing, trying and supervising these newly minted bike thieves for a crime that otherwise would not have happened.
Criminologists agree that the best way to prevent crime is to minimize opportunity not create it. There are much more effective ways to combat bike theft, and they all ultimately come down to making bikes harder to take and easier to track once they are stolen. If the city wants to do something effective, it could start by launching an educational campaign teaching riders how to properly lock their rides and support local bike registry programs—like the one recently introduced at Temple—that make it harder for thieves to ride or sell stolen bikes.
I just don’t see the sense in creating criminals simply to arrest them. Aren’t there enough criminals in Philadelphia already?