UIPD using evidence-based concept to battle bike thefts

URBANA, Ill. — Theft is the most common crime on just about any college campus, but now the University of Illinois Police Department is employing an evidence-based strategy to alleviate the persistent issue.

Thousands of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign students, faculty and staff use bicycles daily as an efficient and sustainable means of getting around. So when those bikes go missing, it is a huge disruption in the lives of people who rely on bicycles as their primary method of transportation.

Although security cameras, better bike racks, and registration have served as deterrents, deficient locking equipment used by campus community members continues to create opportunities for bike thefts to occur all over campus. Dozens of bicycles are stolen every year, and the value of the stolen property is often beyond $10,000.

University police now are employing a place-based policing strategy. Using crime analysis to identify hot spots for theft, patrol officers will spend short periods of time in each area to make themselves known.

The strategy is based on a phenomenon identified through the Minneapolis Hot Spots Patrol Experiment, which found that short-term patrols cut less serious crime in half in areas identified as hot spots. However, the evidence also shows that if officers stay in a particular area too long or too often, the deterrent effect of that officer’s presence diminishes significantly. This latter phenomenon is known in policing as the “Koper Curve.”

“Think of yourself driving down the highway,” said Lt. Joan Fiesta. “You become more compliant throughout the entire trip when you see a trooper in random places. If you know that there are normal ‘speed traps’ along certain stretches of highway due to officer habits, you learn that you’re safe to speed in certain zones and slow down in the speed traps. Our goal is to reduce thefts just by being present.”  

UIPD has already had some success with its anti-theft bicycles, which are tracked by GPS and send an alert to UIPD when they are moved from the rack where they have been staged. Then UIPD staff use the tracking system and campus security cameras to identify and stop the thief. The program has resulted in a number of theft arrests.

The anti-theft bikes will still be planted at bicycle racks around campus, but the short-term patrols are expected to have a deterrent effect to prevent thefts before UIPD has to make an arrest.

“It’s a simple solution that can have an effect just by getting out of the squad car for a little bit at random times,” states Lt. Joan Fiesta.  “It’s more cost-effective than doing a special detail on overtime or assigning a person to sit on the bike racks.”

The best protection against bike theft will always be a heavy-duty U-Lock and chain combination to secure a bicycle, as well as bicycle registration to aid in recovery. However, university police are optimistic that the evidence-based strategy will aid in theft prevention, and the department plans to monitor the results of the program to assess its strength.