When thieves in Irvine snapped loose a locked bike and left with their valuable haul on a Sunday in late November, police tracked them.

As soon as the bike was moved, a GPS device hidden on the bike sent an alert to Irvine officers who followed the signal to the area of Barranca Parkway and Paseo Westpark.

There, officers found the bike in the trunk of a Ford Fusion and arrested a couple, two 31-year-old residents, one from Fullerton, the other from Buena Park, who were booked on suspicion of felony grand theft.

The bike, the lock and the GPS device were a part of a strategy used by police agencies across the nation called “bait bikes,” which gained popularity five years ago and provide a simple and high-tech way to curb bike thefts.

In Irvine, which offers more than 300 miles of bike paths, the number of cyclists continues to grow – and so does the potential for bike thefts.

About five years ago, Irvine police responded by buying bait bikes and placing them around the city.

Has the program worked?

“Thefts of bicycles are an ebb-and-flow business,” said Sgt. Karie Davies, a spokesperson for Irvine police. “We know that when we deploy the bait bikes and we make an arrest, it reduces those crimes for a period of time.”

Last year, 306 bikes were reported stolen in Irvine, according to police statistics, which is in line with an average year since 2015.

This year, police have recorded more than 700 bike thefts so far.

Davies thinks the explosion is, in part, because residents are buying more bikes as many turn to the outdoors to cope with COVID-19 restrictions.

in Irvine, CA on Monday, December 7, 2020. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

UC Irvine also deploys its own bait bikes around campus. Many students and faculty members rely on bikes to commute to the university, making them an easy target for thieves, UCI Lt. Mike Hallinan said. “They take them and ride away on them.”

Bike thefts on campus have also increased, from 173 in 2019 to more than 210 so far this year.

Supervisors with several law enforcement agencies characterize bike thieves as often individuals who have been arrested multiple times for property crimes. “Career criminals,” Davies calls them.

Police are also aware that the persistent thefts are likely a symptom of larger issues, such as addiction to drugs and alcohol, mental illness, and a growing population of people experiencing homelessness.

“The people that are stealing, they’re stealing it ’cause they possibly might not have money, whether to buy drugs or alcohol or shelter,” said Sgt. Phil McMullin, a spokesman for Orange police, which deploys bait bikes around their city and on Chapman University’s campus.

Police departments such as Orange’s will often plant bikes valued at that more than $950 so the officers can file felony grand-theft charges, which can lead to incarceration, as opposed to misdemeanor theft.

“As far as targeting the poor, we’re targeting criminals,” McMullin said when asked about such concerns. “We’re targeting people who break locks, who steal property from members of our community.

And just because somebody is poor doesn’t mean they have to break the law and steal,” the sergeant said. “There’s lots of outreach groups that provide food and shelter.”

McMullin said when officers plant the department’s two bikes, they are stolen within several days – sometimes within hours.


By Kelley Wheeler

Kelley Wheeler is a Metro reporter covering political issues and general assignments. A second-generation journalist, worked with all major news outlet, she holds a vast expeirience. Kelley is a graduate of USC with degrees in journalism and English literature. She is a recipient of Yale’s Poynter Fellowship in Journalism.

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