Some Canadians have done what many of us have dreamed about: organized their own stings to get their missing bikes from thieves. The stories make great headlines, but there’s more going on than good guys sticking it to the bad guys. How much do we value,
Your bike’s been stolen. What can you do? You could plan to steal your bike back in a diy sting operation, with each detail carefully orchestrated. Or, like Kayla Smith, you could just improvise. Here’s how your improvised sting might go down. After a friend spots your still-new Masi road bike on Craigslist a few days after it is swiped from outside a friend’s house in Vancouver – even though your friend assured you that it would be fine and what are you worried about? – arrange to meet the seller in the parking lot of a nearby Mcdonald’s. Tell the friend to meet you there, but before anyone has time to think, stroll up to the seller and ask to take the bike for a test ride. The seller, a skinny kid in board shorts and a worn T-shirt, or, in Smith’s parlance, “a crackhead” will then agree. (“I’m from Vancouver. I know what a crackhead looks like,” she says.) But he’ll say something like, “Don’t ride away with it,” which will freak you out just a little bit because you’re going to do just that. Then you’ll slowly roll away from the crackhead, round a corner where your friend has just pulled up in her car. The crackhead will then realize what’s going on, turn and flee.
This is the dream scenario for a diy bike sting. It’s how it went down for Smith in Vancouver in 2013. And since we’re talking dream scenarios, check out what happened next: she posted the story on Facebook, which led to Reddit, which beget coverage in the Globeandmail, the Toronto Star, Dailymail, the Today show, and then, as a climax to
the whole affair, she found herself yukking it up on TV in Chicago with Steve Harvey and his moustache.
It was the bike-theft feel-good story of the season. For a brief moment, she was the victim who fought back. She was the one who stuck it to the bike thieves. She embodied every victim of bike theft who has fantasized about tracking down her beloved ride and stealing it back. Smith was all of us, and it felt good.
Well, the Vancouver cops did harsh on the buzz. They said they were happy that Smith got her bike back, but, you know, things could have easily gone badly. You can’t take the law into your own hands in these situations, they said. She should have involved the police. They described Smith – a 33-year-old bartender at the time, one who beamed with with pride in a photo snapped right after the sting while holding her recovered bike – as a vigilante. A vigilante! The worst part? They were probably right.
In 1996, a researcher, Les Johnston, in the Britishjournal ofcriminology identified six features of vigilantism as he attempted to define the practice. Smith’s recovery of her stolen bike doesn’t match Batman’s methods of taking the law into his own hands – her snatch outside a Mcdonald’s doesn’t seem to “constitute a social movement,” which is one of the six criteria – but it does land a solid five out of six on that scale. Maybe five and a half.
Johnston writes that vigilantism “arises when an established order is under threat from the transgression, the potential transgression or the imputed transgression of institutionalized norms.” This, I think, explains why Smith’s story feels so good to the rest of us and went so viral. We think bike thieves deserve it. They’ve upset the social order by bankrupting the idea that you don’t mess with another person’s stuff. “Everybody can relate to my story,” Smith says, “because bike theft is a fucking epidemic in Vancouver.”
Vancouver long held the title as the worst city in Canada for bike theft (more on this later) but it’s a dubious competition of degrees. Theft is epidemic i n nearly every modern city. This past November, cbc found that 3,728 bikes were stolen in Toronto in 2016, indicating an increase of 26 per cent since 2014. In Calgary, thefts spiked 64 per cent in 2016 compared with the previous five-year average. In Vancouver, 513 bikes were stolen for every 100,000 residents in 2015, the highest rate in Canada. Those are just the bikes reported stolen, estimated at a fraction of the total that go missing.
So yeah, bikes go missing all the time, but so does other stuff. What is it about bikes in particular that seems to inspire people to go rogue? Think a bit more about the whole “imputed transgression of institutionalized norms” thing from Johnston’s paper. One element in vigilantism is a lack of confidence that these transgressions are being dealt with through the proper channels. There’s a reason the Guardian Angels grew out of New York in the bankrupt years of 1970s, and not the Sexandthecity years of the late 1990s and early 2000s. People go vigilante on bike thieves because they don’t think the cops will do anything to help.
Take Omer Lifshitz. A Toronto paramedic, he bought his first road bike, a Specialized, a few years ago to take part in a charity ride. One night, he inadvertently left it on his front porch. Goodbye, Specialized. A few days later, his girlfriend spotted it for sale on Kijiji. Lifshitz called the police and reported it. The police thanked him and explained their next move would be to call the seller and ask for the serial number to ensure it was indeed stolen. Lifshitz was astonished. He thought this would tip off the seller and ruin his chances of getting his bike back. ”I actually told the cop, ‘That’s the stupidest thing in the world,’” he says. “Somebody trying to buy a bike is not going to say ‘Can you send me a serial number so I can check the registry?’”
The move pushed Lifshitz into Batman mode. He gathered some burly friends and arranged to meet the seller.
The move pushed Lifshitz into Batman mode.
Does this sound familiar? Lifshitz got the bike back, but to his surprise, when the seller realized he had been trapped in a homemade vigilante sting, he didn’t make like the Vancouver crackhead and run off. What happened next illustrates how complicated things can get when extrajudicial justice hits the ’burbs. The seller stuck around and waited for the cops, insisting he did nothing wrong. He had purchased the bike legitimately and was simply reselling it, he said. He had a handmade bill of sale to prove it. “I was like ‘Dude, when the cops arrive, the serial number is going to match the serial number on file at the bike shop. What are you talking about?’” Lifshitz says. But when the police arrived, the seller calmly explained his side of the story, going so far as to say that he deserved some compensation after Lifshitz loaded the bike into his trunk to take home. After much discussion, the police gave the seller a ride home without arresting him, saying they had no evidence he was knowingly passing off stolen goods.
Lifshitz was livid. To him, the seller was trying to profit off stolen property, and would have succeeded if Lifshitz didn’t take matters into his own hands. All the seller faced in the end was a free ride home. “At the time, I thought it was bullshit,” Lifshitz says. “The cops didn’t do anything at all. If anything, they hindered my investigation.”
Lifshitz’s experience is an extreme example of the general impression of police indifference to bicycle theft. What’s worse, when police do speak about the issue, it’s usually to remind people to take care of their own bikes, which tends to come off as victim blaming. But such an outlook oversimplifies the issue. Indifference may exist in some places, but often it’s more about police being overburdened with other priorities.
If you look closely, it seems as if bike theft has almost become a crime without punishment because of a thousand little choices we all make. We suck at locking up our bikes securely. We don’t record our serial numbers. We don’t register our bikes. We resist initiatives proposing mandatory registration. We don’t question suspicious offerings when we buy second-hand bikes. The bike industry has failed to agree on standardized serial numbers. Online resellers such as Craigslist and Kijiji are often accused of turning a blind eye to listings of stolen bikes. (Kijiji sent a written response disputing this, pointing to a long list of things they do to combat theft,
They described Smith as a vigilante.
The source and the solution to bike theft, and bike vigilantism, comes down to one thing: we don’t value bikes as we should.
including working with police, responding to ads flagged by users and using “industry-leading technology and a dedicated community support team.”) We don’t even understand the scale of the problem because, according to one study in Montreal, only 36 per cent of people bothered to report their stolen bikes to police. This is all a recipe for consequence-free crime.
Yet at the same time, we look at bikes differently than other pieces of property. Unlike, say, a toaster, we build emotional connections to our bicycles. We rely on them to get us around. They help us reach athletic goals. They connect us with our youth. Learning to ride them is a rite of passage. Teaching our kids is a rite of parenthood. Bikes are a source of health, sanity, mindfulness and fun in a world that lacks all of those things. When bikes go missing, it hurts. There’s a mad dichotomy that seems designed to break our hearts.
Yet, fundamentally, the source and the solution to bike theft, and bike vigilantism, comes down to one thing: we don’t value bikes as we should. It’s easy to say the police don’t care, but it’s more accurate to say we’ve built a society that doesn’t care, unless we are the victim. By and large, we still fail to view bikes as an important part of our lives. They’re expendable luxuries. Compare bike theft to stolen automobiles. Automobile theft remains a problem, but when the industry started taking the problem seriously in the 1990s by building better anti-theft technology and police started focusing on the issue, car theft rates plummeted. In New York City, the rate of automobile theft declined by 96 per cent between 1990 and 2013. In Canada, theft dropped by 40 per cent between 1999 to 2009. In other words, because we decided to start caring, we got the problem more under control. We’ve yet to do that with bikes, despite how incapacitating it can be to lose a bike, particularly for the increasing number of Canadians who rely on a bicycle for transportation.
Bike theft has become so ingrained that we’ve almost come to accept it. But when we reject the idea that “bikes simply get stolen,” things can change. Probably the most promising example is happening in Vancouver. On Granville Island, once the worst spot in Canada’s worst city for bike theft, a comprehensive approach to stopping the problem has has reduced theft at the busy public market by nearly 80 per cent in two years. There’s no magic formula, just hard work. Led by Vancouver Police Const. Rob Brunt, the online bike registry 529 Garage and the administrators of Granville Island, the program has business owners, bike shops, community organizers and volunteers implementing such initiatives as bike valets, loaner locks, the relocation of bike racks to better locations, education programs and the involvement of 529 Garage’s online database shared by consumers and police across jurisdictions. This program is managing to prevent bike theft and, by extension, bike vigilantism as well.
After Const. Brunt told me about the work happening in Vancouver, I asked him about vigilante bike stings. He gave me the cop answer: “I always tell people never put yourself in harm’s way. That’s what we are paid to do.” He then told me a couple of stories had that featured stolen bikes being returned to grateful owners, with nary a vigilante involved. They were inspiring in the same way those vigilante stories were, but perhaps not as tailor-made for Reddit. Still, they made his advice a little more palatable.
Even Smith and Lifshitz are more likely to listen to that kind of advice these days. While both are happy they got their bikes back, they realize they got lucky in situations that could have gone badly. “I don’t think anybody should take the law into their own hands,” Smith now says. “That guy could have had a knife on him for all I know.”
Lifshitz, too, says he no longer harbours anger toward the police for the way they handled the situation. He’s still disappointed, but he’s taking a broader look at it now. “The problem is when you treat a bicycle like a toy,” he says. “It’s not treated as someone’s mode of transportation, or someone’s livelihood. It’s not even treated as someone’s expensive sporting equipment. It’s treated like a toy.”
Smith says she never blamed the police because she understands how many demands they need to balance. “It’s not that they don’t care; it’s just other pressing matters,” she says. “I don’t blame the Vancouver police for anything. They are doing the best they can.”
This, from a vigilante.