Jared McGourty’s bike was stolen one week ago. He left it locked outside Miller Hall like he usually does, then went fishing. When he came back to take it for a ride, both the chain and bike were gone. McGourty said he filled out a report for the police right away, but when told they would try to find his bike, it didn’t sound too promising to him. The bike is still missing.
“I filled out what my bike looked like and everything, and they said ‘Have a good day,’” McGourty said. “I was hoping they would explain it to me a little more.”
Fifty-five cases of bike theft were reported last year, resulting in over $54,000 in lost property, said Christopher Croft, lieutenant of UM police operations. He said that so far this year, there have already been 32 bike theft reports, putting the lost property value at $17,000. This does not include the many bike thefts that go unreported.
Techniques like using U-locks, writing down bike serial numbers and filing bike theft reports help to alleviate the problem, but for police, tracking down bikes is still not an easy process.
“A lot of our students don’t ride bikes everyday, maybe once a week, or once a month,” Croft said. “So, it leads to a large delay or a time frame between when the bike goes missing to when it’s reported potentially stolen, which gives criminals time to get away with it.”
According to Croft, bike thieves often target dorms, like the Miller quad area. Students tend to leave bikes out in the open and in plain sight. People constantly move around the area, and in a dorm environment, you don’t know all of your neighbors. You don’t know whose bike belongs to whom, he said.
Even though they are always checked, campus security cameras can only confirm that a bike was stolen, Croft said. It can be hard to get a clear frame of a face from a dark figure in the middle of the night. It’s also difficult to verify nondescript bikes, especially without a report. Croft said it’s too much ground to cover to check every single rack, but routine campus patrols keep an eye out.
Students whose bikes are stolen can report the theft on a bike report, which is issued to UM campus police. Information about the bike, along with photos, serial numbers and notes about minute details like dents or stickers should all go in the report. This report will go into a computer database system that Missoula police can also use to match serial numbers.
At the end of every school year, the UMPD Parking Enforcement Division goes through the bike racks and tags abandoned bikes or bikes with missing parts. Tagged bikes that are not claimed are held for 90 days as abandoned property and then sold in a silent bike auction. The latest auction occurred on Aug. 28. Students can go through the auction to try to spot their bike if they thought it was stolen, whether they’ve reported it or not.
Croft said the money raised at the silent auction goes toward the UMPD’s bike department program, providing equipment for officers, bike and theft education and bike lock sales at the parking office. He said removing excess bikes on campus also helps lower the rate of bike thefts. Many of the bikes are cheap, selling at just $5.
“The goal is just to get the bicycles back out there to somebody that can use them,” Croft said. “Get them back in the hands of college students that can’t afford to pay a lot of money for a bicycle or motor transportation.”
Bikes that are found are normally called in as abandoned bikes, ditched somewhere around town, Croft said. Citizens and routine parking patrols find some, and others are found when serial numbers are matched through a national database that contains the bike reports.
Pawn shops in Missoula also use a database to enter bikes’ serial numbers as they are traded in. Missoula police can use these numbers to cross-reference stolen bikes. Because of the high rate of bike theft in Missoula, some pawn shops no longer allow people to trade in bikes.
Brian Hughes, owner of Riverside Pawn Inc., said he is very selective about whether he decides to sell or pawn a bike, and he usually only trades with trusted customers. Employees at the shop document a seller’s identification and the make, model and serial number of the item. This lowers the risk of pawning stolen items and aids local police.
“Whether it’s a skill saw, a drill, a gun, a knife, a bicycle, it doesn’t matter. We always report that information to the police department,” Hughes said.
Croft said cable locks can be cut in seconds with bolt cutters, but U-locks are made of thick metal, and only something heavy-duty (like a grinder) can cut through them. The bike theft and prevention page on the UM website teaches students the most effective ways to lock up and register their bikes.