DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - Last week, Los Angeles Downtown News reported on the spike in bike thefts in Downtown. The crime is up nearly 60% this year, with an average of more than one bicycle each day being stolen. The numbers may actually be higher, as this is just thefts reported to police. If the current pace continues, Downtown will see more than 400 bicycles taken in 2015.
This has serious implications for an evolving Downtown Los Angeles. The community is in transition, and although billions are being invested in the Central City, it might not take much to turn newcomers off of the area. For multiple reasons, some not so obvious, local leaders need to treat bike theft seriously, and they need to take action right away.
It is easy to shrug off a bike theft. A casual observer might imagine some kid who either can’t afford a bike or who commits a crime of convenience when he sees a bike inadequately locked. That may be the case sometimes, but other evidence, plus the sheer magnitude of the thefts, indicates that something else is afoot. A coordinated effort by some level of organized criminal activity — possibly a bike theft ring, those who buy stolen bikes, or others — likely underlies what is happening. It should not be given short shrift.
Downtown bike theft is the purview of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Central Division, and it is the appropriate entity to take the lead role. That said, this should not be seen as solely a police matter. The LAPD has myriad duties, with its officers responding to serious crimes across the community. To make headway against bike theft, the police should seek cooperation from business improvement districts, neighborhood groups, management companies at apartment complexes and the homeowners associations in condominium buildings.
The economic aspect is real. New bicycles can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars. If the approximately 140 bikes taken in the first four months of the year were worth an average of $250 each, then that would be a cumulative loss of merchandise valued at $35,000. If the bikes on average were worth $500, the total lost value for the 140 victims would be $70,000, and annualized it comes to around $210,000, not exactly chump change.
The first step is for Central Division to take a proactive approach, whether that means a new bike theft detail, staging frequent bicycle theft “sting” operations or, more importantly, having officers visit known stolen bike collection yards elsewhere in the city. Once there, they must challenge the management to produce proof of ownership of the plethora of bikes stacked high. In short, arrest those who stand to make significant dollars from the bicycle “chop shops.”
A bike theft also takes on meaning when placed in a community context. Downtown is forming neighborhoods rapidly, but someone who loses a bike from a seemingly secure spot might think twice about whether the Central City is an appropriate long-term home. Anyone who has ever gone to a bike rack or street sign to find their locked bike gone, or who has entered a community storage room in a residential building to see a two-wheeler missing, can tell you how the loss is both economic and emotional.
What’s behind the spike? One detective pointed to Proposition 47, a measure passed by California voters last year that, in the effort to reduce prison overcrowding, reclassified six felonies as misdemeanors. Apparently this change has led to less enforcement of many “minor” crimes, as police know that criminals end up back on the streets very quickly. The unintended repercussions of Prop 47 are being seen throughout the state. That’s why the police need to focus on the bike collection yards; the dollars will be big enough to prosecute for felonies. That will bring the District Attorney’s office into the action.
The LAPD will find eager partners in the community. Officers can work with the security teams from the area BIDs — this will lead to dozens of pairs of eyes on the streets every day.
Bike owners play a role, of course. It may be impossible to stop a determined thief, but people can curb some crime by locking their bike effectively. A U-lock is the best approach, and both frame and wheels need to be secured. This is widely known, and riders must realize that Downtown L.A. is not Podunk, Idaho. In any big city potential crime must be anticipated.
The LAPD has been trying to warn people to lock their bikes securely through a social media campaign, but that can’t be the extent of the action. A stronger response is necessary. As we say, this is more than the occasional kid grabbing a bike. This is its own kind of organized crime, and it ought to be treated as such.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2015