San Francisco is closer than ever to meaningful reductions in two types of crimes that have plagued The City for some time: cellphone robberies and bike thefts. Though law enforcement officials have grasped the issues surrounding both, the divergent approaches to the solutions show the next steps forward are crucial to either stanching the issues or merely placing more bandages upon them.
The magnitude of the crimes involving cellphones and bikes is staggering. Roughly 50 percent of robberies in San Francisco involve the theft of a mobile device. For bikes, a new study estimates that 4,085 actual or attempted thefts occurred in 2012 — a loss of $4.6 million in property.
But how law enforcement officials have come to view the crimes — and how to prevent them — differs greatly. For many years, police warned cellphone users to be careful where they used their mobile devices and suggested they not talk in many public places. In other words, the onus for safety was placed upon the user.
Recently, starting with a push by District Attorney George Gascón, the focus on responsibility has shifted away from the user and onto the phone manufacturers. Gascón and New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman have done a good job of pressuring cellphone makers to help reduce the resale value of phones by, eventually, installing technology that would block a phone's use once it is stolen.
The trajectory of blame for bicycle theft has more or less followed that of cellphones. For many years, police said it was an issue of not properly securing bikes. But most San Franciscans who have had a bike stolen know that thieves can circumvent most lock systems, or just take any and all unsecured pieces.
Once a bicycle is stolen in The City, there is hardly a chance for the owner to recover it — even if police have it. Last year, police seized 864 stolen bikes, yet just 142 were returned to owners. The big hurdle is proof of ownership, which is basically the original receipt. Anything less, even a picture of the owner on the bicycle, is not enough to establish ownership.
With the scope of the bike-theft problem in focus, The City is rightly planning to launch a registry program that will allow people to better connect themselves to a bike, thereby increasing the chance of recovery after theft. The City directed $75,000 in funds from this fiscal year's budget to the program. The nonprofit San Francisco Safe is set to create and manage the registry.
The registry is a positive step, but it does not go far enough since it is only voluntary. While other cities have done away with a mandatory registry in which fines are levied for noncompliance, there is a middle ground on the issue: an opt-out registry at the time of purchase.
Many studies have shown that people are more inclined to participate in programs if they are automatically enrolled and have to opt out rather than the other way around. The bike registry only will be effective if it helps reduce the resale value of bikes by making them traceable after a theft, and this can be done on a city level only if there are enough participants in the registry.
Fees for registry might be a hindrance to encouraging cycling in The City, but so does not having a bike after one is stolen.
Correction: This editorial was corrected July 25, 2013. A previous version incorrectly stated the amount The City set aside for a bike registry. The amount is $75,000.