San Francisco’s Police Department has taken to Twitter to tackle bike thieves - and it’s already resulted in a successful raid on a ‘chop shop’ used to resell stolen bikes.
Harnessing the power of social media, the SFPD Bike Theft Twitter account allows people to photograph people they think might be stealing or handling bicycles, and dispatch an officer to investigate.
Officer Matt Friedman, a keen cyclist, set up the account, because he realised that victims failing to properly fill out police reports or track their serial numbers had led to a stockpile of 850 stolen bikes being housed at the police warehouse.
He told the San Francisco Bay Guardian: “Bicycles are expensive, and its all a part of making the city a green city. We embrace bike riding here.”
Using the Twitter account he can publicise recovered bikes and reunite them with their owners, but more controversially he has taken to posting pictures of known bike thieves.
Last month he displayed photos of a Charles Vogel, first with a saw in his hand as he removed a bike lock, and again in a police mugshot.
He said that he took time to ensure he verifies the identity of those he accuses of crimes. But in this case, it was clear what the offender was up to.
He said: “I’ve had several encounters with this gentleman in the past, he was holding a angle grinder, it saws off locks, basically.”
And in the first victory for the Twitter account, a cyclist spotted a ‘chop shop’ on her way to work, and, angered by the recent theft of her mountain bike, tweeted a photo of the people at work.
Later that day, she received notification from the police that they had raided the site and cleared the area.
But not everyone sees the account as a force for good.
Jeff Adachi, The City’s elected public defender, said that he took issue with the photographing and shaming of potential bike thieves.
He said: “It creates a potential liability for The City if the police are wrong, and it doesn’t allow for the process that we have to determine guilt or innocence.”
“We have to be careful we don’t accuse people of crimes before a crime has been committed.”
Leah Shahum, the director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said: “We know that while individuals stealing bikes is an issue, the greater concern is organized bike theft rings.
“We urge the police to focus on these highly organized bike theft rings, where fencing operations are exploiting low-income individuals by buying bikes for pennies on the dollar, and reselling them online or at flea markets across Bay Area.”
But given that a city-wide budget analyst found that the value of reported and likely unreported bike thefts was $4.6 million in 2012, it seems that in this case, every little helps.
After an unpromising start, having to be bribed by her parents to learn to ride without stabilisers, Sarah became rather keener on cycling in her university years, and was eventually persuaded to upgrade to proper road cycling by the prospect of a shiny red Italian bike, which she promptly destroyed by trapping a pair of knickers in the rear derailleur. Sarah writes about about cycling every weekend on road.cc.