Burlington Cyclists Band Together to Recover Stolen Bikes | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Burlington Cyclists Band Together to Recover Stolen Bikes


Published July 26, 2022 at 2:27 p.m.

  • File: Thom Glick
Django Koenig woke up one morning last week to find his black Jamis bicycle missing from the porch of his apartment on Burlington's Decatur Street. Someone had sliced through two cables to steal the bike, which Koenig uses to cruise around the city.

Koenig posted about the theft on Front Porch Forum and asked his coworkers to keep an eye out. Then one of them mentioned a new Facebook group that helps stranded cyclists find their bicycles. Koenig doesn’t use Facebook much, but he posted in the group and hoped for the best.

Two hours later, he got a notification: Another member of the group had found his bike and would keep it safe until he could retrieve it. Koenig was shocked.

“THANK YOU!” he wrote in the group, adding a heart emoji.

Koenig’s was the first stolen bike case solved by BVT Stolen Bike Report and Recovery, a Facebook group that has grown to 400-plus members since it was created nearly three weeks ago.

Group members, many of them longtime bicycle riders, acknowledge that thefts are a perennial problem in Burlington. But they say the issue has gotten worse this year amid an overall increase in larceny-related crimes during the pandemic. With city police too short-staffed to respond to and investigate bike thefts, the cyclists act as de facto detectives by posting photos and descriptions of missing bikes — and sometimes, the people they suspect stole them.
The group was founded by Burlington resident Michael Waters, a bike mechanic and enthusiast, who created it after hearing about rampant theft. Two of his own bikes were taken in the last couple months, though neither was locked up.

“I just feel bad for people this is happening to,” Waters said. “There’s a lot of nice people [in Burlington], and their bikes are getting stolen.”

Multiple times a day, group members share stories of cut locks and bikes pilfered from porches. Sympathetic riders suggest investing in sturdier U-locks, GPS-enabled trackers or alarms to deter thieves. Passersby report when they find bikes dumped in ditches — or, as in Koenig’s case, leaning against a fence at a cemetery a couple blocks away.

A city official has even turned to the group for help. Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) posted on the page after his friend’s bike was swiped earlier this month. The friend also made a police report. Hanson did, too, when his own bike was stolen a few weeks ago. It was the third bike he’d lost to theft in Burlington.

Some group members have blamed Progressive councilors such as Hanson for the recent increase in thefts, pointing to the council’s June 2020 decision to reduce the size of the police force through attrition, which sparked a mass exodus from the department. But Hanson says a larger force wouldn’t necessarily help solve the problem.

“Regardless of how heavily staffed the police are, or how focused on bike theft they are, it's never going to compare to having a broad network of people looking out wherever they go,” he said.
Hanson suggested the city could invest in more secure bike storage to prevent thefts. Meantime, he said it’s helpful having a Facebook group to share information about stolen cycles.

The group is certainly communicative. Theories have emerged that there's an organized bike theft ring operating out of City Hall Park. People have shared photos of suspicious vehicles with truck beds full of bicycles; some believe the operators are transporting them out of state for sale. Burlington police didn’t respond to an interview request about the trend or provide data on bike thefts.

Several group members have posted photos of suspected thieves, and one person shared a video while following a “known" bike bandit who was walking down the Church Street Marketplace. Another member attempted to rally neighbors for a nighttime patrol to confront the alleged criminals.

“They are actually scared of us,” the poster wrote. “Lets [sic] get our bikes back!!”

The discourse has left moderators scrambling to create a code of conduct that warns victims against exacting vigilante-style justice. The group’s new guidelines include a reminder that “everyone is innocent until proven guilty” and a plea to “have some empathy.” Photos of people's faces are prohibited as of a few days ago, but previously shared pictures haven't been removed from the page, which is public.

Longtime cyclist Liam Griffin has watched the discussion unfold. He said it’s helpful to post photos of stolen bikes and to discuss trends but hopes people abide by the no-faces rule. Griffin said the theft is likely driven by substance use, which worsened during the pandemic, rather than organized crime. He’s concerned that suspected thieves could become targets for retribution.

“It’s hard to say what tactics people are willing to use to get their stolen property back,” Griffin said. “It has the potential to go wrong.”

Waters, the group’s founder, recognizes the risk and has asked members to use caution if they approach someone who may have stolen their bike. One slip-up, Waters said, “would be the end of a [group] of people trying to do their best to get some bikes back.”

Waters has encouraged people to deter thieves in other ways. He recently bought a flashlight and whistle, which he hopes could stop a theft in progress. Other group members have linked to bikeindex.org, a site to register bikes and report them stolen.

Koenig, whose bike was recently recovered, said the group has inspired him to help find other stolen bikes.

“It made me feel really good about our community looking out,” he said. “This may be the first [bike recovery] but definitely not the last.”

And he's not risking another theft. Koenig's bike is now sitting, safe and sound, in the middle of his living room.