In the city of Charleston, at least one bicycle is reported stolen every day on average. A review of incident reports from the Charleston Police Department over a 27-day period, running from July 22 to Aug. 17, shows a total of 36 reported thefts. And according to local law enforcement, there's bound to be a spike in thefts as students return to college. Bike theft is often referred to as a crime of convenience built upon opportunity and low risk. But for those cyclists who fall victim to theft, it's anything but convenient.
"Theft is such a prevalent thing in all downtown areas, Charleston included, and the feeling when you get a bicycle stolen, it's just a terrible sense that you were violated and it's hard to shake that feeling," says Daniel Russell-Einhorn, owner of Affordabike, who's made a personal effort to help the victims of bike theft recover their property. Although Russell-Einhorn admits that his business stands to make a profit from each bike that goes missing in Charleston, for him it's a moral issue. He says he'd rather run a business in a place where people feel safe and comfortable relying on their bikes to get around the city. That's why Affordabike stepped up to work with the city in an effort to make sure everyone in Charleston registers their bikes, something that local police say greatly adds to your chances of having your bike recovered and returned to the right hands.
"If somebody had their bike stolen and they registered with the city, we can flag that in the computer. If an officer stops that bicycle a week later, a year later, or five years later, it will pop up as stolen and have the owner's information on it," says Lt. Heath King with the Charleston Police Department. "If somebody had their bike stolen and they were not able to provide the officer with the serial number or registration number, basically unless there's some major identifying marks on that bike that we can attribute back to somebody, which is really rare, that bike is going to be hard to track back to the owner, even if we put our hands on it."
According to King, local law enforcement notices an uptick in stolen bikes at the start of each new semester at the College of Charleston. Registering your bike is mandatory for students at the college, but cyclists can also register their bikes at police headquarters at 180 Lockwood Blvd. for $1, or register for free at Affordabike on King Street. As you would probably expect, a bulk of bike thefts occur downtown. Often an opportunistic thief just happens upon a bike that someone's failed to properly secure, and they simply ride off. But that's not always the case with thefts in all parts of the city.
"Over in Harleston Village, where we have a large concentration of student living, it's more of a nighttime planned-out theft with people with bolt cutters stealing bikes. So as far as prevention what we ask people to do is bring your bike inside at night if at all possible," says King. "If not, when you're out or when you're at home, lock it up with a very nice heavy-duty lock, like a U-lock. Lock it to something that is not easily defeated, meaning like a 100-year-old bannister on a front porch. We'll have them just get ripped off of those things from time to time."
A look at bikes reported stolen over the past month proves King's point. Thefts on Aug. 8 and Aug. 14 involved bikes that had been locked to posts on the victims' porches. The thieves simply snapped the bannisters, grabbed the bikes, and rode off. There were no witnesses in either crime, so tracking down the criminals is going to be a challenge, as with any bike theft. Luckily, there's a program in place that city police have been using to great effect in apprehending these offenders.
"As far as trying to catch these guys, the program I started three years ago was a bait bike program where we use a GPS tracking device put in a city-owned bicycle out in areas where we've had theft," says King. "The bike will get taken, and we'll be able to track the bike and send police resources to locate the offender. And it's been a wildly successful program. We've gotten a ton of bike thieves off the street by doing this and it's been a very positive crime-prevention tool."
In South Carolina, bike theft is treated as a misdemeanor, and when the value of the bike is less than $2,000, penalties are capped at $1,000 or 30 days in jail. While Affordabike has partnered with the police to register bikes, Russell-Einhorn sees a need for greater deterrents for possible thieves, one that would likely have to come from the top down.
"It's not really like any theft is better or worse than another one, but a bicycle might only cost $200 or $300, so the penalty for the crime isn't that bad," he says. "But I was hearing all these stories of people walking out the door and finding their bike stolen and now they have all of these troubles getting to work, so to me it was just more painful than a simple theft that people were experiencing."
For Russell-Einhorn, the dollar value of a person's bike does not represent the utility or the benefits that they may have gotten from the item. In this way, losing your bike is just as bad as losing a car if that's what you rely on every day to commute to work or pick up groceries. As for the criminals who prey on the city's cyclists, Russell-Einhorn believes this brand of theft involves very little risk, something that he thinks could be changed by acknowledging that the value of a person's bike is dependent upon just how necessary it is to their daily lives and having penalties reflect that.
"In my dream world, it's a scenario where a new law comes out. It doesn't have any impact immediately, but all of a sudden a couple of guys get caught and they're in serious trouble. Then it kind of ripples back and maybe we see some results," he says. "Can you imagine if a local politician just said, 'Hey we're really trying to crack down on bike thefts because we want you to feel more encouraged to ride.' That's what I'd love to see. I think that's kind of in my dream world, but I think that's what it would take to change the perception about it."