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Bike theft vexes students, police; Public Safety intensifies efforts

Returning to the Graduate College late one September night, Sadanand Dhume GS locked the front wheel of his spanking new Schwinn bicycle to a nearby bench.

It was the last time Dhume would ever see his bike, for the sight that greeted him when he awoke hours later was truly horrific.

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"When I got there the next morning, all I could see was a wheel," Dhume said. "It was a very strange feeling. I said, 'No, no, no. I must be imagining things.' But that was the end of my bike."

Harvard has stabbings, Penn has shootings and Princeton, well, Princeton has bike theft. Though not likely to be featured in episodes of "Law and Order" any time soon, it is a crime that resonates among students like no other just because of the sheer volume of bikes that are lifted each year. Simply put, if you have not had yours stolen yet, you have either been assiduous in guarding it against theft, or your bike is a rusty tin can.

On a campus at which most students would not think twice about leaving their room unlocked, bike theft stands out as an often lonely reminder that crime can and does take place here. Indeed, a bike left unprotected in Princeton is probably at no less risk of being stolen than one left on your average block in New York City.

"It's quick, easy money. And college campuses are the place to get it," said Barry Weiser, crime prevention specialist for Public Safety.

This academic year alone, Public Safety reports that upwards of 100 bikes have been taken, meaning that one is being stolen just about every other day. The large number of high-quality bikes in such a small area combined with the ease with which a successful theft can be pulled off makes the campus a magnet for thieves.

"Almost everybody has a bike, and almost all the bikes are expensive ones," said Public Safety Investigator Duncan Harrison. "There aren't too many places you can go to steal Cannondales."

The usual suspects

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Though there is no one set of characteristics that defines your average bike thief at Princeton, Public Safety believes the crime is usually the work of a fairly sophisticated operation with strong ties to the drug trade.

Weiser explained that, often, the money one gets for selling a stolen bike on the street is needed badly for a very specific purpose.

"Those people who need it are criminals involved in the drug-trade culture," he said. "I'm talking about addicts."

Charles Kuhn, an owner of Kopp's Cycles on Spring Street, agreed. "The bikes are being taken to New Brunswick and Trenton and being sold for pennies on the dollar – probably for crack money," Kuhn said.

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While the police have arrested everyone from little kids to mature adults for the crime, the majority of the thieves are those people who do not look the slightest bit out of place riding around campus. "These thefts aren't strictly in the pitch of night," Weiser said. "They're taken in broad daylight when people who look like students come up to the bikes and ride away."

No matter who is stealing the bikes, the bikes are almost invariably taken out of the Princeton area and sold some place where they are less likely to be identified. "The bikes that are stolen here are taken to New York City. We firmly believe that," Weiser said. "They're sold to Columbia students. And theirs are sold to us."

And that is why bike theft is so pervasive. While it is not believed University students are involved in the actual stealing, Weiser said they are certainly not blameless when it comes to the supply and demand of the market for stolen bikes. "How many of us brag 'I got this bike for $100?' " Weiser said. "Well, surprise, surprise. How many bikes have you had stolen?"

Taking precautions

Students are also hardly free from responsibility when it comes to the way in which some bikes are left for the taking without having been locked or registered. Each year, the laxness with which students guard their $500 Trek 800s makes bike theft the crime Public Safety deals with most often.

"Nine times out of ten, it's their own fault," Kuhn said, explaining that bikes locked to themselves, bikes that are locked only by their front wheel and bikes that are just plain not locked are the most common mistakes that allow the thief an easy target.

Understandably, such careless practices are nothing short of maddening for those charged with curbing the rate of theft.

For Public Safety, the problem of why so many bikes are stolen is both simple and confounding. It is simple because the crime is easily preventible, requiring only a small measure of time and common sense on the part of the bike's owner. What makes the crime so vexing, however, is the steady stream of disconsolate students who continue to file into Public Safety to report they had not taken the most basic steps to prevent theft, and, lo, their bike is now gone.

These students' moods only worsen when they reveal that their bike had never been registered and, as a result, there is very little chance they will ever see it again.

Harrison, who is responsible for looking into every bike theft reported to Public Safety, said that stolen bikes that have not been registered are almost never recovered.

"We have no other way of knowing who the bike belongs to," Harrison said. "The thief can just as easily say 'This is my bike.' "

Not only that, but registration is also highly useful when a bike is missing, but has not, in fact, been stolen. The University's impounded-bike lot is full of bicycles that have been taken by housing department officers because they were parked where they were not supposed to be, or were left on campus over the summer.

Though a log of impounded bikes is kept, students who suspect the University officers– not thieves – have taken their bike have no way of proving this and therefore stand little chance of getting their bike back before it is sold for scrap metal. "If it's not registered, then we can't return it to you," Weiser said.

Catching the crooks

Of course, if the bike really has been stolen, that could be problematic even if the bike were registered. After all, finding the thief is not a challenge to be taken lightly. "Bike theft is the hardest (to investigate) because there's no evidence," Harrison said. "The bike was here, and now it's gone. That's not a lot to go on."

So far this year, Public Safety estimates a little more than a dozen of the bikes taken have been recovered. Aiding in the department's efforts to catch thieves is the success of the bike-patrol program in which Public Safety officers ride bicycles on their daily rounds.

"The whole thing is, when you're on a bike, you can get to the bike racks. When you're in a car, you can't," said Sgt. Kenny Samuel, one of the major proponents of the recently created bike patrols. Samuel said the bike patrols have meant that several thieves have been caught in the process of removing bicycles from the racks.

Periodically, the department and the Borough Police also conduct stakeouts in which a bike is left unlocked, and officers stand watch to see who takes it.

"When we get a rash of bikes reported stolen, we try to pick that area where they were recently stolen from, and we set up a stakeout," Samuel said. However, scarce resources mean that the stakeouts cannot be conducted as often as some might like.

Still, a major emphasis is placed on stopping the crime while it is in progress, both because it is simpler for the victim and because it means a stiffer penalty for the thief. "You can only charge them with possession unless you actually catch them in the act. You wouldn't get jail time for that," Harrison said, explaining that the low possibility of serious charges makes the crime all the more alluring.

Task force

Ideally, of course, the bikes would be too hard to take in the first place, thereby making the monetary rewards of bike theft not worth the effort. Toward that end, Public Safety is presently putting together a task force designed to reduce the number of thefts next year.

One of the major thrusts of that effort will be to get information to students early on about ways to minimize the damage done during what is prime thieving season: September. This year, of the some 100 bikes stolen, 36 were taken during the first month of the academic year.

As part of that effort, the department will be advertising its registration program more prominently and encouraging students to buy u-shaped locks. Once the bikes have been registered, students can buy the locks from Public Safety for a nominal fee that can be refunded in full to students' accounts whenever they return the lock and its keys. Last month, Public Safety had to buy 100 additional locks because their initial stock of 500 had run dry by mid-March.

The program of providing u-locks is predicated on the idea that even locking a bike is often not enough to prevent theft. Each year, bikes that had been locked are stolen, largely because their owners used the wrong kind of lock. "Most of these cable locks are able to be cut by a hand tool. That's the problem," Weiser said.

Though Weiser acknowledged that even the far stronger u-locks are capable of being broken, he said that the likelihood of having a bike stolen when a u-lock is being used is infinitesimal.

"The purpose of the u-lock is that it's a deterrent. It's very difficult to cut," Weiser said. "You can break these locks. However, the whole concept is, if you have nothing on (your bike), the guy doesn't have to go to that trouble." So far this year, there have been no reported incidents of u-locks being broken.

Not a fad

Though there are some who think bike theft is a crime spree whose time will pass, it is unlikely. Borough Police Captain Peter Hanley said he would like to think that bikes are not unlike CB radios and radar detectors – products once popular among thieves that have since become pass?. But he knows otherwise. "The bikes are a bit less of a fad than those two were," he said.

Harrison, too, does not see much chance for a major drop in theft simply because bike thieves are smart. "They're crafty. They're very crafty," Harrison said. "For whatever deterrent you have, they find a way around it. They really work hard thinking things up."

On the more hopeful side, while bike theft has been the campus's top crime problem in recent years, it has not always been that way. Samuel, a 32-year Public Safety veteran, said that when he started, the problem was negligible. "They had maybe one or two bikes stolen in a six-month period," Samuel said. However, he said that the considerable appreciation in the value of bikes – a trend not likely to reverse itself – has had a lot to do with the increase in thefts.

Stew Young '00 bought a $600 Specialized Rockhopper for only $300 while he was in Japan two years ago. Not only was it a fine bike, but Young had had it carefully outfitted with all the highest quality parts, the centerpiece being an elephant horn that could scare the living daylights out of any pachyderm that dared enter his path.

Just before spring break this year, after Young mistakenly locked the bike to itself rather than to the bike rack outside of Dodge-Osborne, it was stolen and likely sold for a fraction of what Young had paid for it.

Since his bike was stolen, Young said he has been relegated to using his sister's Huffy. Though he is hopeful he will be buying a new bike of his own soon, Young said he is still upset about the theft.

"It kind of had sentimental value," said Young with a forlornness that indicates the old bike is not entirely replaceable. "And that great elephant horn."

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