Where technology fails, foot officers succeed in curbing bike thefts

Bike surveillance at USC


There’s a common sight at USC: a single bicycle wheel locked securely to a rack. The rest of the bike? 


Bike thefts are one of the most notoriously difficult crimes to control on college campuses. There were 376 reports of stolen bikes at USC in 2017, making it the most frequently reported crime that year. That number dropped significantly in 2018, however, to 297 reported bike thefts.


“There are 10,000 bikes on USC’s campus and only about 5,400 of them are registered,” said David Carlisle, assistant chief and public information officer of the Department of Public Safety at USC. “The number one problem on college campuses is the theft of easily portable objects.”


Sometimes unlocked bikes are left in obvious spots. That might be the cops. DPS has been experimenting with “bait bikes,” which they leave out hoping to tempt thieves. The bikes are outfitted with GPS tracking devices. But even that has proven difficult. “It’s hard because there are so many choices for the thieves,” said Carlisle.


According to DPS Operations Captain Edgar Palmer, the department has been trying a variety of approaches.


“We used to think that armed officers were the best way to deter bike crime, but we’ve realized that there’s not enough of them to spread out over campus,” Palmer said. “Over the last year we’ve been spreading our unarmed CSOs [Community Service Officers] at the entry and exit points on campus because we simply have more of them.”


If a gun doesn’t deter an aspiring bike thief, why would someone clad in a red and yellow jacket work better? Palmer says the key is getting to know their targets.


“If a CSO sees someone they know has been a problem in the past, they try to engage,” he said. “Even just yelling out, ‘Hey, Freddy, what’re you doing on campus today?’ makes them aware that there’s someone watching them, and that’s worked to deter crime.”


Another recent effort in DPS’s battle against bike thefts is the use of surveillance cameras and bait bikes.


Even using surveillance cameras to monitor areas with lots of parked bikes hasn’t yielded stellar results, Carlisle admits.


“Part of the issue with surveillance is actually catching people in the act before they leave campus,” he said. “And it’s hard to get people to actually steal bait bikes.”


The campaign for bike safety is hardly just a USC effort. According to Carlisle and Palmer, the security departments at UCLA and USC often collaborate to foil repeat offenders.


“You’d be surprised — about 70 or 75 percent of the people we apprehend are faces we’ve seen before,” said Palmer. “When someone’s been selling stolen bike parts wholesale or we’ve seen an uptick in crimes by one person, we alert the other schools so they can be on the lookout for that person.”


DPS officials admit that most of their efforts are moot, however, if the stolen bikes aren’t registered.


“If we see someone with a bunch of bike parts strapped to their back and try to apprehend them, we can’t if there’s no proof that the bikes are stolen,” Palmer said. “Registration takes literally a few seconds and you can even do it online. Bike thefts are a public safety issue and that’s why you see us impounding so many unregistered bikes. We don’t want thieves to be attracted to our campus.”


According to Palmer, another phenomenon that has led to an uptick in thefts in general around campus is something he calls the “zombie walk.”


“I’ve seen so many students walking around with their heads in their phones, even on crosswalks,” Palmer said. “It’s so easy for someone to come over and pluck it out of your hand, and that’s actually what most of our crime reports say.”


There’s also the simple matter of awareness. DPS officials want more students to register their bicycles and to think about bike theft.


“Our jobs would be a lot easier if students were aware,” Palmer said. “So remember to thank a CSO on the way out of campus today.”