Police sting halts bike thieves in their tracks

PC Bob Kenney checking bikes at Endcliffe Park.
PC Bob Kenney checking bikes at Endcliffe Park.

A COUPLE of months ago, PC Bob Kenney noticed a bike spike.

PC Kenney was a founder of one of the UK’s first cycling police units in Sheffield 12 years ago.

Since that time, cycling in Sheffield city centre has doubled and around Britain cycling police are no longer viewed with a raised eyebrow and observations about non-aerodynamic helmets or ‘Do you have to give them a backie when you’ve caught someone, officer?’

“There are now hundreds of bicycles in South Yorkshire Police,” says Bob. “We were actually the second force after the Met to start a cycling team and now it’s just normal. I’m quite proud of that.”

The increased numbers of civilian Sheffield cyclists has brought its own challenges, however.

“We call it a spike when there’s an increase in crime and there’s been a spike in bike thefts at both the universities and the teaching hospitals and in the city centre.”

On average, around Easter, a bike was being stolen every day.

So Bob and his colleagues from the Broomhill and Sharrow Safer Neighbourhood Area and the City Centre Safer Neighbourhood teams put their bike theft ‘sting’ into operation.

In 2010 Sheffield University paid £2,000 for two tracking devices following a smaller spike of bike thefts from the campus and worked with the local police team on a theft deterrence plan. Then the thefts dropped off and the plan was only used on an occasional basis.

The recent spate of new thefts has encouraged the police teams from Broomhill and Sharrow and from the city centre to gear up again.

Two tracker enabled bikes are set up and then securely locked at identified theft hotspots. The universities or other agencies are alerted, CCTV is monitored and the police teams go about their business as normal.

If the sting is successful, as Bob puts it: “The bike texts me and says: ‘I’m being stolen!’”

One officer logs on to a computer, spots the GPS-enabled bike moving around Google Earth and alerts colleagues to its location. Up to now, the police have gone for what Bob calls option one, that is, stop the thief, arrest him and return the bike.

“We’re now looking at the second option, which is to carry on watching the bike to see where it ends up,” he says. Thus potentially catching the dealers as well as the thieves.

In eight weeks, the police have dealt with six theft-related incidents and made four arrests.

Bob had spent time monitoring CCTV footage beforehand and had already identified four individuals operating in the Broomhill and Sheffield University area who were likely bike thieves.

Since the sting began, two of them have been arrested and, as Bob puts it: ‘We’re on the trail of another one, and I think we’ll get him. We think catching two and identifying another is quite a good success rate.”

The tracking devices are hidden somewhere on the bikes (fairly decent ones, says Bob, to act as bait, although he notes that donations of new decent bikes from shops or elsewhere will help the scheme succeed.)

Bob then sets up a ‘virtual security fence’ at a certain distance round the bike and if the tracking device notes that the bike has moved beyond this area, it sends an immediate text message to all the officers involved.

Bob hopes the scheme will have the immediate effect of reducing bike thefts (which had gone up by around 25% over the previous year) and of reducing the fear of theft among new cyclists, which he thinks may put some people off cycling.

“Sheffield is supposedly the safest city of its size in country, so a scheme like this to stop people becoming victims of crime will play our little part in making the city a safer place to be.”

He’s also in the process of setting up Twitter and Facebook accounts to keep people in the Broomhill, Sharrow and university patches aware of the latest news, including bike theft hotspots and information.

Bob hopes the sting operation will run continuously now and will change location as need arises. Companies wanting to help cycling employees by funding their own tracker bicycles, like Sheffield University did, would also be welcome.

“The message is we’re on to it, we’re actively trying to catch bicycle thieves. If you‘re a bike thief, I think we’ll get you eventually.”

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