Read Scott Martin says he never left his bike—-a silver Specialized Rockhopper he bought used— untended or unlocked until, one afternoon, he did. Stopping off at a friend’s Capitol Hill office building for a quick chat, Martin left his bike outside, behind a wrought iron gate and leaned into the storefront’s doorway. The bike was in full view of the office’s bay window, so he figured it was safe.
Loquacious in a Harvard-math-professor kind of way, the sandy-haired 43-year-old was unlikely to keep his tète-à-tète brief.
After talking over a “business matter” for about 30 minutes, Martin left the office, planning to hop on his mountain bike and pedal four blocks to his house on A Street NE. Not a chance. The bike had vanished.
Despite feeling “dumb” for neglecting to use his U-lock (it was attached to the bike, so the thief got that too) the marketing consultant called 911. “A squad car was there in 10 minutes,” Martin says. “The thing that stood out was the officer was very familiar with the problem.”
The other thing that stood out for Martin was that the cop didn’t blame or criticize him. “I kept waiting for her to roll her eyes and say ‘You stupid turkey,’…she didn’t.” In fact, she did the opposite, assuring him it wasn’t his fault.
Though District cyclists might think a dude like Martin, naive enough to leave his bike unprotected while he runs an errand, got what he deserved, Sgt. Christopher Micciche of the D.C. Police Department’s Crime Reduction Team doesn’t see it that way: “If you leave your car unlocked while you pump your gas, you probably do not want someone coming along and stealing your laptop out the passenger side door. And if you run into 7-11, it would be nice if you didn’t have to worry about someone coming along and riding off on your bike.”
That’s one of the reasons he and the CRT plant bait bikes on D.C. streets. Micciche explains in an e-mail that the unlocked, decoy bikes are leaned “in a plausible location, such as in front of an occupied home, or on the porch, or outside of a business establishment-where one might likely find that an individual left their bike to transact their business momentarily.”
When a bike hustler tries to wheel away the bait, the officers swarm.
The stings have produced 13 arrests so far, and have yielded some odd moments: Micciche remembers how two bike thieves were warned by officers to not take the bike, but then moments later “did so anyway” and how another “waited until his Metro bus arrived, then hustled over and grabbed the bike, placing it into the bus bike rack and boarding the bus.”
He also remembers how most of the perps saw nothing wrong with what they did. Almost every person who stole a bike “could not understand the concept of not taking property that didn’t belong to them,” Micciche says.
Some consider it their occupation.
An admitted bike thief, who would not allow his name to be printed, is likely the guy who stole Read’s bike for two reasons: He operates exclusively in Capitol Hill and Georgetown and his favorite boost is an unlocked bike. “If a bike is unlocked,” he says, “how’s that stealing? It can’t be stealing—you just found a bike.”
The thief, a middle-aged guy built like an ex-athlete, stakes out a dimly-lit spot on a curb. This is where people can find him if they’re in the market for a stolen bike. Some he’s sold over the three or four years he’s been at this retail for thousands, but the thief has never let a hot cycle go for more than $75, he says.
He’s never been yelled at or chased, much less arrested by the police. Really, he says, he’s providing a service: When he takes someone’s wheels, it encourages people he robs to register their bikes next time.