When I wrote recently about police using an unlocked bike as theft bait outside a Goodwill store — and getting smacked by a Seattle jury for it — I got a lot of interesting feedback. Including from the police themselves.
“South Precinct officers have conducted numerous bait bike operations, resulting in twelve arrests,” the police put out in a news release. “Of the twelve arrested, all have been charged. Bait bike operations will continue to both deter bike thieves as well as arrest those who profit from this crime.”
Since it’s apparently full-speed ahead on this practice, I decided to look a little deeper at how these arrests played out. Armed with the police and court records from bait-bike operations across the city, going back to summer 2018, I wanted to look at the larger question: Is this a good use of city resources, both police and prosecutorial?
For starters, I got case files for 17 bait-bike cases, with 13 of those occurring in the South Precinct (I’m not sure why this doesn’t exactly match SPD’s figure of 12). The other four bait stings were in Capitol Hill, Ballard and the University District.
It works like this: A bike is parked somewhere unlocked, while undercover officers loiter nearby. Uniformed officers move in for an arrest when someone takes the bike away. One sting last year involving two bait bikes deployed 12 police officers — six in plain clothes on the observation team, two on the arrest team and four for driving the arrested to jail, according to a police operations plan.
Arrest records indicate police ran the stings at least five times in the Sodo area between July and October of 2018, and in other parts of town this winter and spring. The records stopped in May so any recent stings are not included.
I’m going to focus solely on these Sodo cases. Of the 13 arrests in Sodo, nine were at the Goodwill, in which a bike was parked leaning up against a tree among some shrubs next to the Goodwill Outlet liquidation store on Sixth Avenue South.
Of these nine, at least seven of the people arrested were homeless, records show — giving some heft to the defense attorney’s claim that “this was a sting operation that targeted homeless people.”
It also isn’t quite true that everybody got charged. Two of the nine arrested at Goodwill haven’t been charged even though more than a year has passed. One of them had his case officially dropped when city lawyers filed no charges in 90 days. Another was arrested in August 2018, but his case mysteriously remains marked “open” and “pending” even though no charges have been filed. To be clear, it’s not the police’s fault when prosecutors seem to just ignore cases.
In another sting a few blocks away from the Goodwill, the bike used was worth $5,000 so police recommended felony-theft charges. But King County prosecutors punted: “State declines to file charges at this time, defendant unconditionally released from jail.”
In three more cases, those arrested were booked into jail, released and then later charged, but failed to show up for hearings and so now have bench warrants out for their arrests. These cases are best described as unresolved.
There are also a few cases that have been “continued” or involve alternative sentencing — the most promising of which I’ll get to in a minute. Finally there’s one case that went all the way to a three-day trial, with the jury returning a speedy not guilty verdict. A juror tells me this was because the bike was left among the shrubs and the homeless woman who took it never left the Goodwill parking lot.
“I didn’t get any sense why this case went to trial,” she said. “It was ridiculous and all of us agreed on that too.”
But bike-baiting hasn’t come up completely empty. The stings in this time period resulted in two direct guilty pleas. But unfortunately, neither man was deterred by the experience, as both have gone on to be convicted or charged with further crimes.
In one, the man’s sentence for bike theft was just two days in jail, which he’d already served. The other served 93 days but has been in and out of custody several times since for other crimes, including most recently for criminal trespassing and resisting arrest at a Grocery Outlet.
I will say that to the police’s credit, they seem to have tightened up their sting technique. In the more recent arrests, the bait bike has been parked at a bike rack or strapped down to a bike carrier on the back of an unmarked squad car. This seems far more likely to catch real bike thieves than a bike leaning against a tree at Goodwill.
Even folks who have been calling for more police focus on bike theft were put off by that part of the stings.
“There’s a point where theft deterrence becomes victimization of poor people,” wrote Tom Fucoloro at Seattle Bike Blog, in a post called “The dark side of bait bikes.” “If officers had locked the bike, even with an easily-defeated cable lock, we’d be having a different conversation.”
The good news though? In one out of all these cases, there was a glimmer of a path out of this crushingly repetitive cycle of arrest and release and arrest again.
One defendant requested to go to a drug-treatment program, called Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD, in lieu of being put on trial for theft. The court said OK, if he showed up for all of his appointments and stayed out of trouble. One specific condition: “No stealing bicycles,” the agreement said.
Last month, his bike-bait case was tossed — not because he didn’t show or the city attorney failed to file or the police messed something up. It was because he succeeded.
“Case dismissed with prejudice, all conditions met,” the court said after the man’s drug-program counselor testified on his behalf.
More like this last one please. One out of 13 isn’t great. But you take your wins wherever you can find them — even in an ill-conceived dragnet at the Goodwill parking lot.