Aaron Keller only got to ride his new mountain bike once before it was stolen from the locked bike cage inside the locked garage of his apartment in the Ballpark neighborhood.
He purchased the bike a month ago and hadn’t had time to install the GPS tracker he bought. He locked it inside the cage with a heavy-duty lock. But Tuesday morning, it was gone.
Keller reported the theft to Denver police and has been scanning resale websites for his bike, but has little hope he’ll get it back. It’s the third bike he’s had stolen in the Denver area in the last five years.
“If I don’t find it, I’m not really inclined to buy a bike again,” he said. “Even a cheap bike, it’s not worth it.”
Keller’s bike is one of 2,041 reported stolen in Denver so far this year as the city’s bicyclists continue to deal with a surge of thefts. Denver Police Department statistics show the number of bike thefts reported in Denver rose 62% between 2017 and 2020, from 1,420 to 2,304. Thieves are slicing through locks on bikes stored in private garages, storage units and bike racks.
The number of bikes stolen in the first seven months of 2021 already outstrip the annual totals for 2017, 2018 and 2019. If the pace of theft continues, this year will meet or top the number of thefts recorded in 2020. Bike theft is one of many types of crime that surged in Denver in 2020, including homicides, shootings, car thefts and burglaries.
The likelihood that a bike thief will be caught by Denver police is low. Denver police have solved 36 of the 2,041 bike thefts reported so far this year for a clearance rate of 2%. Last year, they solved 122 of 2,304 cases — a clearance rate of 5%.
“We do what we can to track these bikes down,” Denver police spokesman Jay Casillas said.
There is little evidence for officers to use in some cases, Casillas said. If there were no witnesses to the theft and no clear surveillance footage, it’s difficult to figure out who stole the bike. Even if a stolen bike is found in someone’s possession, it can also be difficult to prove that person was the thief or knowingly purchased a stolen item.
“The original thief could’ve given it to someone else, or sold it to someone else,” Casillas said.
But the most important piece of evidence police need is the bike’s serial number. Police use that number to identify stolen bikes in pawn systems and, if the bike is recovered, they can contact the bike’s owner. The police department stores hundreds of recovered bikes at a warehouse but can’t return them to the owners if the bike isn’t registered with the city.
The department’s low solve rates encouraged some people to take the recovery of their bikes into their own hands.
Wayne Rumrill‘s electric bike — his main form of transportation — was stolen from inside his apartment building’s garage on Speer Boulevard in 2019. He found a set of car keys at the scene, located the car and waited for the car’s owner to return. Two hours later, a man wearing a suit returned to the car, but fled when Rumrill confronted him.
He reported the theft and details about the car and man to Denver police. The man was later convicted of felony theft and sentenced to 75 days in jail and two years of supervision, court records show. But Rumrill never got his bike back. His friends crowdfunded to buy him a new one.
“If it wasn’t for my efforts, nothing would have happened,” Rumrill said. “Do as much work as you can, because the police aren’t going to do it.”
Since then, he’s helped others recover their bikes. If a bicycle is seen in the city that matches the description of a recently stolen bike posted to groups like Denver Stolen Bikes, Rumrill and a large group of others will go to the bike and ask whoever is in possession to see the serial number. If it matches the number of the stolen bike, they take it back.
“We’re not about to start assaulting people, but we’re not going to let people blatantly disrespect our property,” he said.
The thefts are not spread equally across the city, police data show. Denver police District 6 — which encompasses most of Capitol Hill and Lower Downtown — saw an average of 590 bike thefts a year between 2017 and 2020, the highest number in the city. District 4, covering the southwest quadrant of the city, had the lowest average with 49 thefts a year.
District 6 also saw the largest increase in thefts in recent years. The number of bike thefts in that district grew by 94% between 2017 and 2020.
Thieves have stolen three of Lee Herndon‘s bikes from his Capitol Hill home. One of his bikes was returned when someone saw the bike at the neighborhood King Soopers, recognized it as Herndon’s stolen bike, and took the bike back, Herndon said.
“The bikes are currency,” he said. “We’ve been told this by the city.”
The rise in thefts is not limited to Denver.
Data collected by Bike Index show bike thefts within a 25-mile radius of Denver reported to the group more than tripled between 2018 and 2020. The index is a free, nationwide online registry where bicycle owners can log their bike’s information and report if it is stolen.
Many cities across the country are seeing similar increases, Bike Index co-founder Bryan Hance said. He thinks the rise was created by a cascade of events and the simple theory of supply and demand.
Bike sales soared as the COVID-19 pandemic struck, creating a shortage that was exacerbated by supply chain disruptions. Resale prices increased as demand remained high and supplies shrank, creating a greater incentive for people to steal bikes as the economy crashed and thousands lost their jobs. The lack of new bikes for sale at bicycle shops also turned more people to the online marketplace of used goods, where thieves can post their goods.
“There’s a whole constellation of apps you can use to sell bikes quickly and anonymously,” Hance said. “You can get robbed and before you even make a police report, these guys will have sold the bike and pocketed the cash.”
The variety of online resale apps and thieves’ ability to remove posts and set up new profiles complicates detectives’ attempts to get bicycles back, Casillas said.
Some members of the bike community point to homeless camps where dozens of bikes — some worth thousands of dollars — are stashed as suspicious.
“I think we all need to be really careful that this isn’t a blanket attack on the homeless” but it would be disingenuous to pretend the bike stashes at the encampments don’t exist, Herndon said.
While the police receive reports of stolen bikes at homeless encampments, the department recovers a “really, really small fraction” of stolen bikes from the camps, Casillas said.
Herndon said he doesn’t blame rank-and-file police officers for not chasing down every stolen bike case. There aren’t enough police resources for that, he said. But something needs to change — quickly — to deter thieves, he said.
“Some of these guys are so sophisticated they can break kryptonite locks and get into gated communities,” Rumrill said. “They’ve made a profession out of this.”
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