Bike Sting

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,

Canadian Cycling Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Tom Babin

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.

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