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Reports of bike thefts are on the rise in Portland

In World
April 08, 2024

Apr. 8—John Brooking had been a bike commuter for 20 years when he locked his bike in Congress Square Park in Portland before catching a show at the State Theatre. He didn’t think twice about weaving his cable lock through the wheel and leaving it there while he enjoyed the show.

When he walked out of the concert, ready to ride the 4 miles home to Westbrook, it was gone.

“I’m usually pretty good at remaining calm, so I just tried to figure out what I should do. Do I try to catch the bus home? Do I call my wife to come and get me? I had to figure out how to get home,” said Brooking, 62.

He jogged to the bus station but missed the last bus. He called his wife. She was already asleep.

“So I ended up walking the whole way home. It felt dramatic,” he said. “I called the police while I walked.”

His $1,000 hybrid bike was among the 16 bicycle thefts reported to the police department in February — and part of a trend police say they’ve seen over the last six months.

Reddit, Facebook and Nextdoor are regularly filled with posts about missing and found bikes. Posters lament the loss of their expensive bikes, toss around theories as to who is behind the thefts, and try to help identify those that were found abandoned.

“Portland didn’t used to be the kind of place where you needed a fancy lock, and I didn’t have any problems until now. It’s definitely picked up. I think it’s because we have more bicyclists here now than we did 20 years ago,” Brooking said.

That’s one theory. Others say that, like any kind of theft, it’s a way to make money.

THEFT NUMBERS RISING

Bike thefts have been easier to report and track since September, when the Portland Police Department instituted a new online reporting system. Instead of having to call the police and file reports in person, it’s now possible to file a report remotely.

Last year, the department received three to 10 stolen bike reports per month between January and September. In October, the first month after the system was up and running, the department received 33. Monthly reported bike thefts have stayed in the double digits since — with the exception of March, when only nine bikes were reported stolen.

Brad Nadeau, a spokesperson for the department, said it’s difficult to say whether bike thefts are actually up, or if more people have been reporting thefts because of the new system.

“Most people don’t care about filing a report, they just want their bike back. So, most bike thefts go unreported,” Nadeau said.

Even with the new system, he said, reported thefts probably represent only a fraction of the bikes actually stolen from around the city.

Portland police don’t have the resources to track down every stolen bike, Nadeau said. Instead, their protocol is to keep a photo or description of the stolen bike in their system and see if it turns up. Sometimes, patrols will recover abandoned bikes around the city. They can compare serial numbers and descriptions with the missing bikes.

“We have found that many of these bikes are broken down and painted over to obscure them,” Nadeau said.

The department doesn’t have data on how many stolen bikes are recovered and returned to their owners, but Nadeau said reunification is rare.

Brooking said he still doesn’t know what happened to his bike. He called police stations in neighboring communities, pawn shops and bike shops to see if the bike had shown up anywhere. He checked Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist.

It’s been more than a month, and he hasn’t heard any news.

‘COMPLETELY WIPED’

Margaux Lewis, a 21-year-old college student at University of Southern Maine, said at least 15 bikes were stolen from their apartment building downtown in February.

“It was completely wiped,” Lewis said. “Everything that was in there was gone.”

Lewis filed a police report but said their impression was that the police wouldn’t be able to do much. There were no working surveillance cameras in the alley where the bike storage was, and it was unclear how long the bikes had been gone.

Like Brooking, Lewis hasn’t heard anything from the police.

In a release from October, the police department suggested using a U-lock instead of a cable lock, storing bikes indoors, using bike racks, locking bikes in well-lit areas and attaching a GPS tracker.

“I’m a college student; even buying groceries is really difficult,” Lewis said. “My bike was my graduation gift from high school. Even with insurance, I cannot afford to replace it. It was basically like my car.”

DISCARDED BIKES

A few months ago, Nadeau says, the department suspected some stolen bikes may have been kept at the homeless encampments.

When those encampments were swept by the city, Nadeau said, the department stored recovered bikes for six months and checked them against reports of stolen bikes.

“Unfortunately most bikes at the encampments went through the ‘chop shop’ and were not salvageable. There were many non-functional bikes and bike parts and those were discarded,” city spokesperson Jessica Grondin said in an email.

Grondin said the city is still storing about 10 bikes at the public works facility on Canco Road, waiting to find their owners.

As for why so many bikes are being stolen, many wouldn’t say or only offered broad theories.

“Overall, many are being used for transportation, some are sold, while some are broken down and sold for parts,” Nadeau said.

Patricia O’Donnell, 71, said her bike was stolen over the summer from a shared storage room at her York Street condo. She never reported the theft.

“I thought, ‘If somebody needed it more than I did, then I hope they get some use out of it,’ ” she said.

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