What comes around
Durango police use 'bait bikes' in hopes of deterring, snagging bike thieves

What comes around

A couple passes a locked bike in downtown Durango. Local police have started placing decoy bikes, equipped with GPS tracking, in high-traffic areas in an effort to deter and catch bike thieves. In 2020, 101 bikes were reported stolen in Durango - so far in 2021, 46 have been taken.­/ File photo

Jonathan Romeo - 08/19/2021

Bike thieves: consider yourselves warned. In an effort to clamp down on stolen bikes, the Durango Police Department has started a “bike bait” program where bicycles equipped with GPS tracking devices are strategically placed around town. When a would-be thief takes it for a joy ride, an alarm is set off and officers have the ability to track the bike’s movements, and ultimately, locate the criminal.

“We have issues with people stealing bikes in our community,” Sgt. Bobby Taylor said. “And we were looking at different options for combating theft.”

With a robust biking community in Durango, stolen bikes are definitely a problem. In 2020, a total of 101 bikes were stolen and not recovered, according to Durango Police Department records. And this year is on track for about the same, with 46 bikes stolen and still unaccounted for as of Aug. 17.

A longstanding issue for law enforcement, too, is tracking down stolen bikes. While rare, it does happen (42 bikes were stolen and recovered in 2020, and 26 have been stolen and recovered so far this year.) This bike-baiting program, the first of its kind in Durango, is just another tool in the toolbox to help with that effort.

“Other departments across the country have had success,” Taylor said. “We’re using everything from old fashion police work … to trying to use different technology to fight crime.”

Since the program started in January, Durango Police have caught three people.

On June 13, Gregory Savage, 31, stole a bait bike from the Transit Center around 2:30 a.m. and was cited for theft. According to police records, Savage had another bike with him at the time that was reported stolen from Four Corners River Sports, and he was issued an additional citation.

Then, around 12:30 a.m. on July 25, two underage males were contacted after allegedly stealing a bike from City Market South and were cited for theft. In that incident, too, one of the juveniles had another bike in his possession he had allegedly stolen from the Florida Road/Folsom Place area.

While stealing a bike may seem like a low-level crime, the sheer cost of high-end mountain, road and touring bikes can range from $2,000 up to $7,000, which drives the seriousness of the offense and subsequent charges, Durango Police Officer Jim Martindale said.

“Bikes aren’t cheap nowadays,” he said.

Zach Myers, owner of Velorution Cycles, said every couple weeks people come by his shop near the Horse Gulch Trailhead to put up posters for stolen bikes. Just recently, one person said a $6,000 bike was stolen from a car while they were getting lunch in downtown Durango.

“It’s not as bad as a city, but it’s pretty rampant in Durango,” Myers said. “I warn people, especially when I rent bikes: Don’t leave these things around, they’ll be gone pretty quick.”

While locking a bike to a bike rack can help deter theft, a determined criminal can easily get around those measures, so Myers recommends people bring bikes inside whenever possible.

“The most common thing I hear is someone has their bike on a hitch rack, they go get food downtown, it’s locked on the rack, and they come back later and the lock is cut and the bike’s gone,” he said. “And most of the time it’s in broad daylight.”

At Mountain Bike Specialists, manager John Glover reiterated much of the same.

“I don’t think it’s quite what I hear about in other communities in more urban areas, but absolutely, it’s a problem here because of the value of the product itself, and the enticing nature it provides for people who are inclined to do that horrible, despicable thing,” he said.

High-end bikes have always ranged in the thousands, but as cycling has caught on in extreme popularity, there are far more out there, Glover said, especially from tourists who come to Southwest Colorado to ride.

On Aug. 9, a Durango police officer noticed several frames and bikes related to recent thefts, and was able to recover a $7,000 mountain bike and a $5,000 mountain bike.

Although often it’s hard to catch and recover bikes, Martindale said police try to look for patterns of behavior. Officers have noticed one bike will be used to ride around town, dumped and then taken by another person, so one bike could be stolen and used by multiple people. Bikes are also dismantled and used for parts to build new bikes. And it’s not uncommon for a high-priced stolen bike to be taken out of state, registered with a local police department, and then sold at a pawn shop with a new registration.

One thing people can do, Martindale said, is register their bikes with the Durango Police Department. That way, the police have the bike’s serial number attached to an owner, so if a bike is recovered, officers can easily contact the rightful owner. “There’s been cases where a bike was stolen five years ago and we find it, but without it being registered, how would we ever attach the bike to an owner?” he said.

By spreading the word about the bike bait program, Durango Police hope to curtail stealing, rather than use it as a measure to catch people. But the strategy has been used elsewhere to lure criminals. At Colorado State University, officers have recovered $360,000 worth in bikes since 2017, with 12 felony and 19 misdemeanor charges levied. 

And while effective, the tactic has run into ethical debates over the years. Some believe that putting unlocked bikes around town could entice someone to steal it that otherwise would not have. In 2018, one case caught headlines after a homeless woman in Seattle was arrested for stealing a bait bike that officers left leaning near a Goodwill, where people typically dump items. The woman’s defense attorney called it a “sting operation that targeted homeless people,” according to a report in The Seattle Times. Ultimately, a jury issued a not guilty verdict.

Durango Police Cmdr. Ray Shupe said officers place bait bikes in highly trafficked areas where bikes are typically stolen. In Durango, he said bikes are taken just about everywhere around town – from driveways, fenced yards, garages and backs of vehicles. “It’s all over the place,” he said. “We look at data we have on recent thefts and decide where we’re going to put it based on that.”

And where bike baiting doesn’t work, the universe can step in.

“There’s karma for people who steal bikes,” Glover said. “Karma has a long memory, and I’m sure it’s coming for them.” ?