Denver police are encouraging city dwellers to register their bicycles with the department so detectives can more quickly reunite stolen bikes with their owners through their serial numbers.
But most officers can't directly access the registry, limiting their use of what advocates say is an important tool to investigate and prevent bike theft, which has spiked recently throughout the city.
Bike thefts have increased continuously for the past three years. Citywide, the number of bike thefts rose by more than 18 percent last year — from 1,410 in 2011 to 1,666. There were 1,339 bike thefts reported in 2010.
Top bike theft locations
Denver police identified these locations as the leaders for bike thefts in 2012. But the crime is on the rise for this year, too.
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And while detectives in each of the city's six police stations investigated more bike thefts last year than they did the year before, District 6, which encompasses neighborhoods such as downtown and Capitol Hill, was by far the hardest hit. Police there clocked 829 bike thefts last year, up from 748 the year before. There were 124 bike thefts reported in the city between January of this year and early March, according to the most recent Denver police data available.
Police started urging bicyclists to keep their serial numbers and bike descriptions on file with the department so that if a lost or stolen bike is recovered, detectives can use the database to search for its owner. But patrol officers can't access the database, which both police and bike advocates say would help them identify stolen bikes sooner.
Officers can already run a bike's serial number through the National Crime Information Center, but it won't show up there unless it has been reported stolen.
"If you saw someone on a bike that looked out of place, ... an officer could use the database to track down the owner at the time," said Sgt. Steve Warneke, a police spokesman.
Molly North, executive director of Bike Denver, said the organization has expressed concerns to city officials about officers' lack of access.
"Nationwide, it's an issue. This is an opportunity for Denver to be a leader in finding a way to keep make that information accessible to officers who need it when they're making a contact," she said. "Access to the information could improve the recovery rate of stolen bicycles."
Police officials have started meeting to determine whether it would be cost-effective to let a greater number of officers access the registration database. Only a few detectives from the fraud unit can use it now, but it could be costly to make the database accessible through the department-wide computer system that officers use in their squad cars, Warneke said.
An individual officer would probably be granted access if he needed it.
It is unclear how many residents have registered their bikes with the city; the department does not have a count of how many people signed up during Bike to Work Day in June, an event that drew more than 22,000 people. Warneke said a police cadet enters the registrations into the database when he has time.
The department encouraged people to register mostly to highlight the importance of keeping a bike's serial number handy in case it's stolen, Warneke said.
"We were trying to partner with the community and say, we're keeping track of them, too, in case you lose it," he said. "The push was to raise awareness. The onus should be on the owner, not the city, to carry those records."
North said bicyclists should continue to add their bikes to the city's database, as the recovery rate for a stolen bike is higher if it has been registered. But she and other cyclists hoped police would find a way to put the information to better use.
"If it feels like it's not being optimized and it's something police can easily access, I might not bother (to register)," said Chris Casey, who bikes to work near the Auraria Campus, which police have identified as a top bike-theft location. "I consider it a serious crime, and police ought to do as much as they can to prevent it."
Sadie Gurman: 303-954-1661, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/sgurman
Protect your bike
To keep your bike from being stolen, Bike Denver recommends locking it when you leave it unattended, particularly with a high-quality U-lock or chain. Always lock the frame and rear wheel to a rack or a pole; for extra security, remove the front wheel and lock it with the frame and rear wheel.
Denver police also recommend keeping bicycles indoors or in a garage whenever possible and registering the bike through the department's website.