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January 16, 2011

'Baited' bicycles catch Winthrop campus thieves

Bike Baiting, a new initiative at Winthrop University, is staving off campus bike thefts and leading to arrests.

"Bike Baiting," a new and affordable initiative at Winthrop University, is staving off campus bike thefts and leading to arrests.

So far, the program has led to five arrests, Winthrop Police Chief Frank Zebedis said.

Police started attaching GPS devices to three "bait" bikes in September 2010, placing the bait bikes among students' bikes around campus, some locked, some left unsecure - as college students often leave them, Zebedis said.

Once a thief takes the GPS-equipped bike beyond a certain range, the GPS device begins tracking the bike, sending its location to police, who begin their pursuit.

Before baiting, bikes were more difficult to recover. In 2009, 20 bikes were stolen, and police recovered one bike and made one arrest.

Throughout 2010, 16 bikes were stolen, including the eight bait bikes. Since September, police have recovered all the stolen bait bikes.

Police twice recovered the bikes without a suspect, who likely saw police responding, dumped the bike, and ran off, Zebedis said.

In each arrest, the suspects were adults, which came as a surprise, Zebedis said.

"I really anticipated that juveniles would have been on these bikes."

At less than $1,500, including materials and monitoring, the program has been a success, he said.

Versatile technology

Zebedis wouldn't describe the GPS units except to say they are difficult to locate on the bike.

They also can be placed on other items targeted by thieves.

Campus police said they have no intention to expand the bike bait program. Making the community aware of the program will help deter bike thieves, he said.

"You don't know if you're getting a bait bike or if you're getting someone else's bike," he said.

Winthrop looked to the University of Wisconsin-Madison when creating its program.

The UW-Madison Police Department began its program in May 2008. More than 100 bicycle thefts were reported on campus from January 2007 to May 2008, and only one arrest was made during that time, according to information on its website.

By the end of 2008, police had made 28 arrests on 85 stolen bikes. In 2009, reports of stolen bikes dropped to 55, and police made nine arrests, said UW-Madison Police Sgt. Aaron Chapin. He said the decline is due to a growing awareness of bike baiting.

There are other benefits, too, Chapin said, including identifying people who are "on campus to steal stuff." Bike thieves aren't usually limited to stealing bikes, he said.

Campus bike baiting programs also helps police educate students on preventing bike theft. Police urge students to register their bikes with campus police and choose larger, U-bolt locks over cable and chain locks, which can be cut easily.

"Crime is an opportunity," Zebedis said. "We can't control the individual's mindset or means, but we can take away the individual's opportunity."

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