The video begins with grainy footage of a college campus and an average-looking mountain bike locked to a rack. Several people mill about the area and one or two bicyclists ride past. A figure enters the frame. He walks towards the bike, looks around a bit, pulls out a small pair of clippers and easily snaps the cable securing the bike. The figure jumps on the bike and rides away. End of story? Not quite—somewhere nearby an officer responding to a text message is logging onto a computer. This was no ordinary bike. It was a bait bike.
Bait bike technology
Bait bikes, like the one in the scenario above, utilize GPS technology. Officers place a GPS unit somewhere on the bicycle and when it is taken from its location, officers are notified. An officer then logs onto a computer accessing a map of the area and follows the bike until an arrest is made. “When it moves or leaves a geofence, it will notify us,” explains Lt. Erik Swanson of the University of Minnesota (U of M) Department of Public Safety’s investigative unit. “We put a device on the bike, lock the bike up, as it is customarily locked up. We want it to be locked like bikes on campus will be locked up. We set a geofence around it. If the bike walks outside the fence, it will call home.” Officers can be notified via e-mail or cell phone. “We do it in the form of a phone text,” Swanson states. “Then we can go onto a website and start monitoring where the bike is moving. We have a number of officers that have phones that receive the text, and the dispatch center is capable of getting them as well. Dispatch will pull up the monitoring [to] view where it is moving. That’s how it works.” Most agencies utilize the GPS units in tandem with video cameras and other technology.
U of M began its bike bait program in 2010, having gotten the idea from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “[UW-Madison was] operating more than one bait bike and we reached out to them for what sort of product they were using,” explains Swanson. “We carried the idea over from there.” Currently U of M has two units it can deploy on campus. “We don’t believe that most of our bike thieves are students,” says Swanson. “Most are doing it for profit, not for transportation.”
University of California-Santa Barbara (UCSB) deployed its single unit in early 2011. The idea came through a partnership and talks with the Associated Students (AS). “We looked at an idea to combat bike theft,” explains Cpl. Matthew Stern, who just finished six months as the department’s bicycle safety officer. “We looked around the country for campuses with successful programs. The University of Wisconsin-Madison uses it successfully. [We talked] about getting a unit and decided to put together funding and purchase one.” At UCSB there are around 20,000 bikes on campus at any given time and in 2011, approximately 300 were stolen.
Cited as the inspiration for university programs across the country, the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison) began using GPS technology to track stolen bikes in 2008. UW-Madison states the idea came from frustration and its neighbors to the north. “A couple of our police officers got frustrated with continually taking bicycle theft reports and noticed there was a significant trend in the City of Madison,” explains Sgt. Aaron Chapin, UW-Madison Police Department. “They started to do some research and found there was an agency in Canada that employed a similar type of program.” UW-Madison has seen a 37-percent decrease in bike theft since the program began.
Initial costs & funding
UW-Madison’s program is funded under its crime prevention budget. The campus PD also partners with Budget Bicycles, a local bike shop that donates bicycles equipped with the GPS units. The department doesn’t have to pay for a bicycle unless it loses one. Chapin states the biggest cost to them was in initial research and man hours, while the cost per year came in under $2,000.