When thousands of CU Boulder students make their annual return to campus each August, the number of bikes reported stolen across the city typically reaches a yearly high.
“Don’t bring an expensive bike to campus. It’s not worth it. It instantly becomes a target,” University of Colorado’s Deputy Police Chief Tom Matlock said in an interview.
CU Boulder’s campus and University Hill are not the only hot spots for bike thefts. According to Boulder Police Department data on stolen bikes, reports have been coming in from all over the city — a bike shop in North Boulder, the downtown bus station, a home in South Boulder.
Boulder Reporting Lab analyzed the city’s publicly available data on reports of stolen bikes from 2018 through August 2022 to better understand how bike thefts track with the recent surge in reported crime in Boulder.
Since the start of the Covid pandemic, theft of car parts, such as catalytic converters, has more than doubled to reach record highs.
But bike thefts have remained relatively steady. In 2021, residents reported 939 stolen bikes to city police. That’s a slight drop from 2020, a record high year, when 1,129 bikes were reported stolen.
Generally, fewer than half of all theft is reported to police, according to national surveys. Bikes stolen from the CU Boulder campus are typically reported to university police, not the city, so not all those crimes are captured in the city’s data. The university did not respond to Boulder Reporting Lab’s request for data in time for publication.
‘The hottest products in Boulder’
Bikes are among the most valuable stolen property in Boulder, according to city officials. In 2021, the total value of all stolen bikes reached nearly $1.8 million. By comparison, that same year, the approximate 270 reported stolen catalytic converters totaled about $510,000, according to the police department.
“It’s probably one of the hottest products in Boulder,” Police Chief Maris Herold told residents during a townhall in May 2022.
Herold said in Cincinnati, where she previously worked, guns were the hot commodity. “In Boulder, bikes are the target,” she said. “We have organized crime and bike thefts, because they are so pricey.”
During the townhall, residents asked about the bikes they see along the creek path. Herold said officers need probable cause to search for stolen bikes. They also need to check serial numbers, which are sometimes grinded off bikes.
“If [the bikes] are in a tent, it requires a warrant to get into the tent,” she said. “It’s a hard crime to investigate.”
The average value of each stolen bike in Boulder has climbed slightly since 2018, according to city data. In March 2022, Driven Technologies reported the theft of a $40,000 triathlon prototype bike. Police said it has since been recovered. Throughout 2019 and early 2020, a series of burglaries at North Boulder’s Boulder Cycle Sport totaled nearly $500,000 in value, prompting arrests by state prosecutors who alleged the heist was related to an international crime ring.
The larceny strikes a particular nerve in a city where even the police take pride in the cycling community. Herold said she used to race bikes competitively and CU’s Deputy Chief Matlock said he rides to work and owns a road, gravel and mountain bikes. The Boulder Police Department recently touted its “two-wheeled advocacy.”
“I have empathy for anybody who gets their bike stolen,” Matlock said. “No matter what kind of bike it is. It’s their transportation. It’s the way they get around. It means a lot to them.”
How to help get your bike back
Law enforcement officials credit an ongoing public relations campaign encouraging people to lock their bikes with a U Lock — rather than a cable lock — for preventing even more stolen bikes. Just about all locks can be cut in about a minute, but some are better than others. The city has published tips for how to prevent bike theft that include leasing an RTD bike locker at bus stations and a guide for reporting a stolen bike.
Despite some success, police are finding fewer bikes and returning them to their owners. According to city data, in 2020, about 6% of all stolen bikes were recovered. The following year, that number dropped to 3%, where it remains today.
The drop is likely due to organized crime resulting in out-of-state sales, difficulties retaining and hiring officers, and the rise in other serious crimes that diverts police resources away from bike thefts, according to law enforcement officials.
“When there are those kinds of staffing issues, there is a triaged approach we have to take to try to address public safety issues,” Daniel Reinhard, Boulder Police Department’s chief data analyst, said.
To help get bikes back to their owners in other places, vigilante groups have formed — from Burlington, VT to Seattle, WA. Some city officials, including in Los Angeles, are cracking down on alleged “chop shops,” public sites where people dismantle bikes into parts.
In Boulder, law enforcement officials say the most important step residents can take to get their bikes back is to document its serial number, take a photo of it, and register it on Bike Index, a California-based nonprofit that sends tips to local investigators.
Mitch Trujillo, a city police officer whose job includes preventing bike thefts, also recommended that victims of bike theft join the Denver Stolen Bikes Facebook page, where users help track down stolen bikes. One member recently posted a photo of himself with his bike after he got it back. He said he found it being sold online.
“Facebook Marketplace is a breeding ground of bike thieves right now. It’s not just Craigslist anymore,” Trujillo said. “Essentially, you’re going to want to put out an APB on your bike.”
Matlock, of CU Boulder, said he would be able to double the number of recovered bikes if more people registered them on Bike Index.
“We find bikes all the time. We find bikes abandoned,” he said. “But if they’re not registered, and they’re not reported stolen, then we can’t do anything about it.”