SF bike registry launching as police ramp up anti-theft efforts

As bicycling in San Francisco continues to rise in popularity, so too do thefts of the two-wheelers.

To help tackle the problem, a voluntary bike registration program is launching today. But while program administrators hope it will be a deterrent for thieves — stickers will be provided for bikes saying they are registered — enforcement operations like the Police Department’s expanding bike-baiting could yield more success.

The registration program is called SAFE Bikes and it will be operated by the nonprofit Safety Awareness For Everyone, which has a 37-year relationship with the Police Department.

A year and a half in the making, the program is designed to reduce theft and return recovered bicycles to owners who submitted their information and bike serial numbers at www.safebikes.org. It’s open to San Francisco residents and nonresidents alike. The program is the brainchild of San Francisco resident Morgan St. Clair, who herself is a victim of bicycle theft.

“I was very frustrated and I started with SAFE in July 2011 and pretty much every week I heard someone say in a community meeting that a bicycle was stolen, so I just kept hearing the same story,” she said. “That’s why I came up with the proposal to start this program.”

St. Clair discovered that the Ingleside Police Station had been administering its own registration program. Supervisor Eric Mar got wind of the effort and sponsored a report by the Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office that found that more than 4,000 bicycles were stolen in 2012 and that only 142 of the 864 recovered by police were returned to their owners.

From 2006 to 2012, the number of bicyclists in The City nearly doubled, but thefts also increased 70 percent, according to the report.

Significant strides toward the registry becoming reality were made when the Board of Supervisors adopted a resolution in October for the program and Mar secured $75,000 from The City’s general fund.

Bicycle theft is an issue that police take “very seriously,” and the program will serve as a valuable tool, said Officer Matt Friedman of the Park Police Station.

Since last year, police have engaged in bike-bait operations in which they lock up bicycles loosely and make arrests when they witness thieves in action, Friedman said. The operation is being ramped up citywide.

“It’s not random, one-time occurrences,” Friedman said. “Many officers have arrested a number of those folks and we know who these people are and we will continue to do whatever we can to stop the behavior from occurring.”

SAFE Bikes is modeled after programs in cities where the police department has a hand in administering the program and registration is voluntary.

In Minneapolis, a bicycle registration program that launched in early summer has been “very effective,” said spokesman John Elder of the Police Department.

“I don’t know if it has deterred bicycle theft, but we do know there is a sharp spike in our ability to return stolen bicycles to people,” Elder said. “It’s also creating a large amount of really good will with the citizens when we are returning their stolen property.”

Its popularity has been apparent in registration numbers — 6,000 in about six months and 1,500 during the first couple of days, Elder said. Making the program voluntary instead of mandatory, the least invasive approach, has been fruitful, he said.

“We’re not looking at this as an enforcement technique,” he said. “It’s really a way to help people recover property.”

Elder’s biggest advice to San Francisco: “Get as much information out about it as humanly possible.”

Bicycling by the numbers

75,000 Estimated daily bicycle riders in S.F.

817 Reported actual and attempted thefts

4,035 Total actual, attempted and estimated unreported thefts

$4.6M Estimated value of stolen bicycles, including those unreported

70% Increase in thefts from 2006 to 2012

16.4% Stolen bicycles recovered by police and returned to owners

Source: Budget and Legislative Analyst’s Office

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