Sergeant Steven Pomatto leaned forward, eyes glinting, hands clasped on the table.
“What I would do,” he said, “is I would see a hobo riding a $4000 Cannondale. That just doesn’t correlate. So I would go up to him and say, ‘I know you don’t have the means to buy this bicycle, so I think it’s stolen.’ And they would say, ‘No, it’s not, it’s mine. I found it.’ What I would do is seize it from them, pending an investigation. I’d give them a receipt, [and say,] ‘Okay, give me 10 to 14 days to find the owner of this bicycle, and then if I don’t then come to me and I’ll give it right back to you. No questions asked, and I’ll even apologize.’ So, I did a lot of that. I would just drive around the Mission and see people who don’t look like they have the means to buy a $4000 bicycle. I mean, I wouldn’t take a $1000 bicycle from somebody, but you can really tell the difference.”
Pomatto is a serious man, and passionate about his work in the San Francisco Police Department. He talks in detail about his job, but rarely about himself. Until last year, he worked in San Francisco’s Mission District to lower bike theft rates.
He dedicated 3 and a half years of his career to the cause after he reclaimed a stolen bike from a homeless man while on patrol. The man was shoeless, while the bike he was walking with had pedals to clip into special shoes. The officers tracked down the owner of the bike, which was worth about $10,000, through the bike’s serial number.
After that incident, Pomatto received every bicycle theft report that came into Mission Station.
He didn’t even cycle.
Mission Bike Theft
The Mission District has one of the highest bike theft rates in San Francisco. A report by the City of San Francisco estimated that 785 bicycles were stolen from District 9, which contains the Mission, in 2012 alone. This makes it the second highest district for bike theft after District 6, containing SoMa and downtown. An estimated 4,035 bikes were stolen throughout the city that year.
Guadalupe Macias, who works at Don Rafa’s Cyclery in the Mission, says that she sees one or two people a week looking for replacements for parts that were stolen.
At Valencia Cyclery, Brian Bonilla says they see people every day who have had their bikes or parts stolen. “Theft is pretty huge,” he said. “I’m actually from LA, and when I was living there I could lock my bike up basically anywhere and not worry about getting the seat stolen.”
Proposition 47 passed in November 2014, raising the crime requirements for a felony and punishing “non-serious, non-violent crimes” as misdemeanors. Crimes like auto burglary and fraud were only lightly punished if the infraction was worth $950 or less. Bike theft, in many cases, also became a misdemeanor.
The Los Angeles Police Department’s Central Division reported a 59% increase in bike theft in downtown Los Angeles in May this year.
In 2014, after Pomatto and others began pursuing the crime, bike theft decreased by about 10 percent in San Francisco. But Pomatto says that now the city is suffering a similar surge in theft after Proposition 47’s passing.
“Before, if you’re possessing that stolen [bike] […] that’s a felony. You’re going to jail,” said Sergeant Matthew Friedman, who with Pomatto worked to prevent bike theft in the Mission District. “Now it’s a little different. Property crime has kind of been devalued as a result of [Proposition 47]. It makes things a little bit harder for us because we’re trying to curb this, and our hammer was [jail time].
“But we’re working around that, and we’re still trying to do our best and pay attention to property crime as a whole and how we can prevent it.”
“Theft skyrocketed after Prop. 47, in all different areas.”
Bike thefts caught by the police in the Mission District, September 7, 2015 to December 7, 2015. Source. Interactive map.
Before Pomatto took up the cause, the Mission District didn’t see a lot of bike theft regulation. The District is home to seven cycling stores, and has a large population of cyclers even by San Francisco standards.
“The [stolen] bikes were just all over the place,” Pomatto said of his first experiences in tracing stolen bikes. “Craigslist, Ebay, Oakland Flea Market, Sebastapol Flea Market. I mean, basically the Bay Area flea markets.” Many bikes were also sent to the Mission’s various chop shops, like one under the 13th Street and Duboce Street underpass.
When Pomatto began focusing on the Mission’s bike thefts, he needed to create a better system for its police officers to manage these cases. He put up a bulletin board in the station with the pictures and reports of the most likely-to-be-caught bike thefts. Officers can look at it as they go out on patrol, and know which bikes to look for.
Pomatto chose the highest priority reports by several factors.
“Number one is hot prowls,” he said. “So if you were at home and somebody broke into your garage or your house, that is high priority because it’s more of a victim crime than property crime.” Property crime is the theft of property without a victim present.
After that, the police department focuses on bikes worth more than $1000. The sheer volume of bike thefts in the Mission means that the police department doesn’t have enough resources to prioritize every bike theft. Bikes who’s owners can provide pictures and a serial number get more traction, as the officers have something concrete to look for. Rare or unique bikes are easier to spot in a chop shop or flea market.
Officers also began using “bait bikes,” bikes planted on the street with flimsy locks and GPS trackers inside. When a thief would take one of these bikes, officers could track it to storage or a chop shop. The bait bikes Friedman used were worth more than $1000 so he could charge thieves with grand theft.
“Bait bikes are nothing new to police departments around the country,” Friedman said, “but we always kept it kind of secret-squirrely. So I didn’t want to do that anymore. I felt like, ‘Let’s let everybody know.’ So everybody knows exactly what we’re doing, maybe we can change some behaviors. [If] people think there are bait bikes everywhere, then they might hesitate to try and steal a bike.”
The department began distributing yellow and black, “Is this a bait bike?” stickers for people to put on their bikes.
“We wanted people to start thinking any bike they touch could have a tracker in it, and the police could show up,” Friedman said.
Often, owners find their bikes for sale on websites like Craigslist. The owner can respond to the advertisement as a potential buyer, and set up a meeting. An officer will accompany the owner to meet the seller and safely retrieve the bike once it is identified.
“It’s always exciting and it’s always nice to see the expression on not only the suspect’s face, but the victim’s face when they get their bike back,” Friedman said. “What they thought was a lost cause turned into a really great day for them. I’m happy to be able to do that and so are a number of officers in the department.”
Connecting to the Public
Pomatto and Friedman did more in the Mission than recover bikes and make arrests. The team also educated the public on preventing bike theft.
They ran workshops to help educate San Francisco’s cyclists on bike theft prevention.
“Steve Pomatto would come in to talk about how we investigate these types of crimes, what we do to safeguard against it,” Friedman said. “San Francisco SAFE [would] talk about garage door burglary and burglary prevention issues. […] Bike mechanics [would] talk about locking strategies and some of the best strategies to deploy when you’re out there on the street, and then we [would] open it up and have a round table discussion.”
The workshops were very popular, with one event drawing 150 attendees.
San Francisco SAFE is an organization in San Francisco that, “engages, educates, and empowers San Franciscans to build safer neighborhoods,” according to its website. It partnered with the San Francisco Police Department to improve bike safety.
“We organize numerous neighborhood watch groups in the Mission and give safety presentations,” said San Francisco SAFE Program Director Irina Chatsova. “We also have numerous people who register their bikes with SAFE Bikes, and we preform security assessments in the Mission.”
Friedman also started a Twitter account (@SFPDBikeTheft) to make the department more accessible to people worried about or experiencing bike theft. He answers questions, tweets useful information, and retweets information about stolen bikes. Now that he has been promoted and given other duties, Friedman doesn’t work directly with bike theft.
“This is kind of a hobby of mine now that I’m taking responsibility for,” he said of the Twitter account, “so I feel like I need to monitor this as much as I can when I can, so I’ll do it at home, I’ll do it on my days off, I’ll try and answer questions.”
Sergeant Pomatto’s suggestions for preventing and dealing with bike theft:
- When you buy a bike, take a picture of the receipt and serial number.
- Get homeowners or renters insurance in case it is stolen out of your home. This will help reimburse you.
- Put some kind of identifying marker on it that no one else will no about (e.g. a piece of green tape under the grip tape). This will help you prove the bike is yours.
- Have a picture of your bike.
- Immediately file a report at the station (rather than online) when you realize your bike has been stolen. The first 5-7 hours are the best chance of recovering a bike, and a report submitted online won’t be seen for several days.
- Visit area flea markets to look for your bike.
- Look through websites like Craigslist and Ebay for someone selling your bike. If you think you have found it, contact police for assistance reclaiming it.
A Broader Scope
Another person who battles bike theft on social media is Jenny Oh Hatfield, a writer and producer for KQED. She got involved with bike recovery and theft prevention in 2012 when she had a bike stolen from her yard overnight.
Hatfield started looking for her own bike over social media, sharing photos and a description and asking her connections to keep an eye out for it on the street. About a week later, someone she knew saw it at a flea market.
“She just went up to [the seller] and said, ‘Hey, I recognize that bike. It’s stolen. So I’m just taking it back,’” Hatfield said. “And he surrendered it and disappeared, so they didn’t have a chance to call the police or anything, but I was reunited with my mountain bike.”
“Afterwards I realized that there weren’t a lot of resources online to help [recover stolen bikes],” Hatfield said. “I thought, ‘I should just put something together to help other people based on my own experience.’” She created a Google Group called Stolen Bicycles: Bay Area, and started getting involved in different groups online.
“As I started to put together resources, I saw that there were different organizations or individuals kind of doing their own thing, that no one was really working together,” Hatfield said. She reached out to organizations like Bike East Bay, SAFE Bikes, and the San Francisco Police Department, where she connected with Friedman.
Hatfield helped compile online resources for bike recovery, and plays a big role in the online cycling community in the Bay Area. When Pomatto recovered a stolen bike, it was Hatfield he’d send the information to to try and find the owner.
Creating the Change
Pomatto and Friedman returned about a hundred bikes to their owners over the year and a half they worked together on bike theft in the Mission.
Both officers have been transferred away from Mission Station, but they put in place a better system for handling bike theft, which still runs today.
“We have a bike registry program, we have materials that we pass out at each station on bike theft, we have a preferred locking strategy that we teach, we taught classes, I taught prevention workshops, I get a chance to speak at other conferences now as well,” Friedman said of the team’s impact.
Pomatto now works in internal affairs at San Francisco Police Headquarters in Mission Bay. It’s a large, modern building with matching furniture and shiny wide windows, very different from the worn halls of Mission Station. But something from the Mission stuck with Pomatto.
“He’s an avid cyclist now,” Friedman says. “I think [the experience] just exposed him to how fun biking can be, and I think as a result of that he really got into it.”