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.

[Review] The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood

The_Corner_book_cover A few years ago, I came late to The Wire, but caught up quickly. Usually I'm not one to buy the hype for television series, but I had to admit that The Wire was every bit as powerful, funny, and eye-opening as its fans claimed. It's a show that you tell friends "you need to watch this" rather than "you'll really enjoy it," because they really do need to watch it.

The Wire is necessary because it actually provides a glimpse into the reality of ground zero in the War on Drugs – a topic that any person (at least in the U.S.) should be well-educated on, but probably is not. And if The Wire is required watching, the book that preceded and inspired it should be required reading. It should be required reading, starting in jr. high if not sooner. 

The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, by David Simon and Edward Burns, is as gripping and compelling as any work of fiction I've ever read. But it has the virtue of being a true story, and true journalism. Simon and Burns spent months getting to know the subjects in the book, then a solid year following their lives on the corner. Interviews, observation, and follow-ups after the year was over. 

The Corner gives a first-hand look at what life is like for those living in the middle of one of the worst neighborhoods in the United States. It provides a look at what growing up in poverty is really like, and why it's not just as simple as "pulling yourself up by your bootstraps." It might surprise people to learn that the corner that Simon and Burns chose is near the birthplace of H.L. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore. The world of Mencken and the world of teen drug slingers and desperate dope fiends are separated only by a few decades and less than a mile.

And The Corner tells the tale from the beginning. Simon and Burns cover the scope of Baltimore's downfall, from the early 1900s when the McCullough family first settled into Baltimore, through four generations of McCulloughs. From stand-up citizen and family man, to his fallen son who essentially abandons his son to pursue his addiction, to a teen who plays at slinging drugs and fathers his own son while still too young to drive. This is how fast our cities decay.

You'll find some hope, but not much, at the end of the book. The book is set in 1994, and published in 1997. More than a decade and a half later, we know how the story goes for many of the people in the book. 

As a work of journalism, I'm simply in awe. We need so much more of this. I can't say that I "loved" the book in the same way I enjoy a good book of fiction or entertaining non-fiction. After 500+ pages, I was ready to leave this world behind and only regretted that there isn't more of Simon's work out there to take on next. (Simon has only two books to his name, this and Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.)  This book is a five out of five stars, perhaps six. It should certainly be required reading for anyone who aspires to have an opinion about the war on drugs or welfare policy in the United States.