Thoughts on Bait Bikes

San Francisco is looking at using "bait bikes" that have GPS trackers to catch bike thieves who've been targeting expensive bikes to re-sell. Part of the plan is to use bikes that are expensive enough to trigger felony charges.

Here's a snippet from the NYT that describes the situation:

Bike theft here has soared in recent years, up 70 percent from 2006 to 2012, a year in which about 4,035 bicycles were taken, according to the latest estimate by the city.

The rash in thefts owes to the increase of bikers and their fancy two-wheelers. These are not your childhood Schwinns with banana seats, but $1,500 or more (sometimes $10,000) technical marvels, celebrated in this ecologically devout, outdoorsy tech culture like an iPad mated with a Tesla. Bikes can be all too easily snagged from outside offices or inside garages, then resold in flea markets or chopped up and sold piecemeal. Often, the police say, the culprits are drug addicts in need of a quick fix.

We live in a "tough on crime" culture, so it's hard to imagine an objection to punishing people for stealing, right?

But, Zeynep Tufecki wrote a piece that says (in part):

in a city in which inequality is greatly increasing, in which those outside the tech industry are struggling to pay rents and deal with increasing cost of life, and in which flushed, moneyed tech employees are buying more and more expensive bikes (the article notes, can cost $10,000), those police are luring people to steal them by intentionally using bait bikes so expensive that the people tempted to steal them can be charged with felonies. If convicted, so that they can no longer vote in many states, and also are unemployable in large sectors of the economy for all practical reasons.

What could go wrong?

Sure, there is a cost to bike theft, and it is a problem. But there is also cost to rendering large numbers of people unemployable through felony convictions.

Now imagine a city in which areas in which tech workers lives were equipped with cameras that caught everyone who ever rolled through a stop sign. You got a felony charge, since the evidence was indisputable. You lost your job, and could never work in the same sector again. You can’t vote either. Maybe you have probation. Your life is ruined, forever, and fairly irrecoverably.

After a long-running thread on Twitter, I thought about this last night a bit more. I still disagree strongly with the comparison between rolling a stop sign and bike theft. Bike theft is intentional harm against another person, and every single time it has negative consequences for the victim and is an act of intent against another person.

Tufekci's arguments about creating a larger population of felons only applies if people continue to steal bikes. If the program is a successful deterrent, then it's a win. And, unlike locking people up for drug use, I have little problem punishing thieves. You want to smoke weed, snort coke, or shoot heroin? It's your body. You want to steal my bike? Enjoy jail, jerkface.

But, but, but… there are other issues here.

One, it's happening in San Francisco, where there's a huge gap in incomes between the tech community and the rest of the community. (And, presumably, the landlord / property owner community…) It's legitimately becoming harder for some of the non-tech community to scrape by.

Two, I sympathize with Tufekci's point about "creating felons" in that there's a huge problem for people leaving prison in finding a job and going straight after being tagged with a felony.