I have visited the joint Transport for London and Metropolitan Police’s Cycle Task Force last year, when Inspector Graham Horwood and his team showed me what the traffic unit was up to. It was a very interesting day, indeed but a couple of weeks ago I got an invitation from Graham to spend a day with the bike theft unit, too. It sounded exciting, so I didn’t hesitate to say yes.
I cycled to their headquarters near Southwark tube on a dark, gloomy and cold morning. Graham greeted me downstairs and then escorted upstairs to their offices. While I sipped my hot beverage he mapped out what was waiting for me for the rest of the day. As there were methods and procedures that were strictly confidential, he couldn’t tell me everything about how they worked, how they tackled crime. What I was allowed to hear was a kind of sanitized version, but it was still full of interesting details.
The plan for the day was to place a decoy bike in Central London, keep an eye on it and if and when someone attempts to steal it, catch the perpetrator red-handed. He warned me that it would be a long day, there would be a lot of walking around and we might not be lucky and might have to go home empty-handed – but I saw all the great cop movies and tv shows in my mind, so I was sure that within 15 minutes, we would be cuffing the first bike thief. Should have remembered from my favourite tv show, The Wire, how things go in reality.
A briefing was called so all the participating officers were aware of all the details. Though it was a sanitized briefing (i.e. no sensitive data or procedure was mentioned) but I couldn’t understand a word from it. Sentences like “We will do a section 232 in sector 43 ” left me utterly puzzled, but the guys seemed to know what was going on and after 15 minutes, everybody shuffled out of the room and started their journeys to an undisclosed location in Central London.
In order to not to stick out like a sore thumb, Graham donned regular street clothes and we headed towards the tube station to catch our train. The journey wasn’t long but it allowed me to chat to Graham about the work they do. I was quite surprised when he said that the biggest hurdle they face is finding out who the stolen bikes belong to. “Often, finding the bikes is not the problem. Tracing them back [to their owners] is the problem”. He gave me an example right away.
A couple of weeks ago, they had stopped a suspicious van and when they opened the rear compartment, it turned out that it contained 10 bikes. When they asked the driver what’s the story with the bikes, the guy shrugged: “I don’t know how it got there, guvnor”. So they tried to find out who these bikes belong to but they could only find two or three owners, the others remained in a secure storage facility. What’s worse is that “in theory he can get the bike back if we cannot prove it’s stolen. We try very hard to prevent that”. That was when I first heard the three R’s: Record, Register, Report. But more on that later.
We slowly got to our destination and we started our patrol – it was much colder than I anticipated but I was sure that we will catch a dangerous bike-thieving criminal very soon. We were walking in a very big circle around the bike. Graham had his earpiece in and followed what was happening around us. He offered we played a little game: try spot one of his men. Damn! I’d seen all of them just 30 minutes ago, but I didn’t memorize their faces, so opened my eyes wide and tried to spot them.
Has it ever happened to you, when you wanted to buy a car, and suddenly, you see that specific make much more often, because it was in your focus? Suddenly, I spotted a lot of people aimlessly mingling around, using their phones and looking around suspiciously. It was hard, it was very hard. Though I pointed my finger towards many men and women that morning, Graham was just laughing. Without obvious visual clues, I ended up spotting none of his team which clearly ended my aspirations to be a superspy (that and the fact that I don’t like Martini).
So there were we, walking around in Central London, on the prowl to catch bike thieves. We carried on talking about the how they operate. On the one hand, they do quite a few of these operations, where they aim to catch serious bike thieves red-handed. But they also work hard to retrieve stolen bikes. How do they do that?
If a bike gets stolen in London, chances are that it will crop up in the next couple of hours on ebay, gumtree or a similar site. While the majority of the bikes advertised are legitimate bikes, you can spot stolen bikes fairly easily: most of the time, they only have an official photo of the bike and the price is too good to be true. The unit has got a good working relationship with these online marketplaces, “online marketplaces all want to be trusted”, said Graham.
However, if you spot your bike, say, on gumtree, DO NOT engage the seller in any way. Even though you might be the rightful owner of the bike, things can quickly get out of hand and you might lose your money and your bike and even risk personal injury. Contact the Task Force on firstname.lastname@example.org – they know how to retrieve a bike and even if they cannot follow up that specific lead, local police would be notified and they would act on the information.
You might ask why do they use stock photos of the bike, why not quickly snap a couple of photos with a phone or a point-and-shoot camera? Because bikes can carry individual marks, scratches, stickers and that would allow the original owner to spot his/her stolen steed.
But there are better ways to make sure your bike can be identified and this is where the aforementioned “Record, Register, Report” comes in. The first step is always recording your bike’s details. The most important piece of information is probably the frame number, you can find it at the bottom of the bike, it is a unique identifier of your bike. It can be useful to just snap a photo of the frame number with your phone, so it’s always with you. Also, record all the details and any special identifying features, components that are different from similar bikes, scratches, stickers, etc. You don’t need to go over the top, but the more pictures you’ve got the better. Once you have got all the details, you need to register your bike in a database. There are different databases, and the unit have got access to all of them, so “If you are in a database, the chances are to recover that bike are a lot higher”, added Graham.
We were chatting casually, when suddenly Graham’s posture changed and he focused on whatever was going on in his earpiece. “We need to grab a Boris bike!”, issued the order. Two minutes later our hunt succeeded and while we were pedalling towards Regent’s Park, he tells me that officers stopped a man, whose bike seemed to be stolen.
We arrived there shortly and there was this jovial man, with a weather battered commuter bike. The police suspected it was a stolen bike as the frame number appeared to be ground out, but he didn’t look like someone who had made a crazy-good deal, gave a valid account of how he aquired the bike and he also upgraded the bike, so they let him go after confirming all his details.
However, Graham pointed out something very important regarding buying second hand bikes: “You can’t play dumb anymore – you have to be aware of the fair market value of a bike”. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So I asked what I could do to avoid stolen bikes.
Figuring out the fair market value is the first step. Searching the aforementioned databases can also give you piece of mind, though checking a bike’s details does cost money (registering them is free). Why would I want to pay money to check whether the bike is stolen or not? “Best case scenario: you lose your money if you buy a stolen bike”. But if you consciously decided to turn a blind eye to the origin of the bike, even one could even be arrested. The lack of paperwork (original invoice, user manuals, etc) should also be a warning sign.
We slowly pedalled back and we decided to sit down in a Cafe Nero for hot beverage – spending three hours outside on a windy day started to take its toll. Other officers joined us and we were casually chatting about cycling in general and who could win the Tour de France this year, when their radios went bonkers and it soon turned out that someone was fiddling with the decoy bike. We jumped up and started to run, but I had to stay behind the corner, until the guy was apprehended. He was in cuffs in seconds and that was when was allowed to get closer.
A nervous looking young-ish boy was standing on the pavement, his hands were cuffed behind his back and the officers were putting the evidence into the plastic bags. He claimed that he didn’t do anything, when they showed him the attacked lock, he didn’t respond. Then he claimed that he was just a simple electricity student and that was the reason for all the tools and pliers in his rucksack – opening the second bag quickly proved that telling the truth wasn’t his forte.
After securing all the evidence, they sat in a van and headed towards his flat in the hope to either find their accomplices or evidence of previous crimes. As Graham later told me, they found a couple of frames, plenty of relevant (to bike thieving) tools and locks that were already cut – so he wasn’t just an opportunistic thief, who wanted to make his commute a bit more fun.
The operation concluded with the apprehension of the suspect and we slowly headed back to the unit’s headquarters. On the tube, I asked Graham, how widespread bike theft is in London. “With the emergence of the “Cycle to work” schemes, the capital has seen a massive rise in the number of bikes – and that’s attractive to thieves. There’s good money in it [as one thief said] why would I sell drugs for £20 and risk four years in prison if I get caught selling a bike worth 400 quid and all I get for it is a slap on the wrist?” Legislation needs to follow the trends because courts don’t really treat with their sentencing practice bike theft a serious crime – even though often we are talking about bikes worth thousands of pounds.
As we arrived back to their office, I asked Graham to give us some final advice how to keep our bikes secure. Here they are:
- Always, without exception, lock your bike. Lock it to something solid and try to use more than one lock. Always lock the frame and preferably at least one of the wheels to the parking facility. The main lock’s value should be around 10% of the bike – but any bike can be stolen, so don’t leave your high-end racer at a train station, no matter how tough locks you’ve got
- Record the details of your bike, the more details, the better. There are also various opportunities to have your bike marked – both the Cycle Task Force and local police have bike marking sessions, where they record your bike’s details and write the frame number on the bike with ink, that is only visible at UV light and cannot be removed.
- Register your bike in one of the available databases. It is free for you and the police only have a chance to retrieve your bike in case it’s stolen, if they can prove who the real owner is.
- Report if your bike was stolen. Always go to the police and report the crime, no matter how futile it might see – and you will need the report for the insurance anyway. If they are not aware of the fact that your bike was stolen, they definitely won’t be able to help.
- Visit www.met.police.uk/transport/cyclemarking.html for security tips and a YouTube video to help you keep your bike secure
It was a long day and on the way back home, I stopped at the cornershop. I locked the bike to the railing, as I always do, when I realized that the railing is so thin, it’s really easy to cut through, unlike my sturdy Kryptonite lock. A simple thing, but might heightened awareness made me find a better, more solid place to lock my bike to. No amount of police work will make bike theft disappear completely, but being sensible and aware of the dangers, you can decrease the chances of your bike being stolen significantly.
Footnote: Suspect was found guilty of attempted theft of a pedal cycle at City of Westminster Mags on 8th March 2011, he received a £50 fine, £25 cost and victim surcharge of £15. The Task Force is independent from the Crown Prosecution Service and magistrates court and have no influence on their sentencing decisions.