The number of bike thefts in Olympia has increased sharply this summer, and law enforcement officials have found bicycle chop shops in homeless encampments.
The Olympia Police Department received 30 reports of stolen bicycles in August alone, said department spokeswoman Laura Wohl. Prior to June, police received fewer than 12 reports of stolen bikes each month — even during previous summers.
“If a bike is left unlocked for five minutes, it will be gone,” Wohl said. “They’re not even safe if they’re locked up.”
The thefts have been prevalent citywide, from downtown to more remote trailheads, and the bicycle's fate depends on its retail value. More expensive bikes are usually sold whole online or to pawn shops. Police are working to develop relationships with second-hand bicycle vendors to reunite stolen goods with their owners.
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Cheaper bikes are most often dismantled and sold as scrap metal, Wohl said.
Olympia Police Department officers found several dozen dismantled bicycles in a homeless encampment on a bluff near Interstate 5 on July 23, Wohl said. Officers estimate that about 10 people live in the camp and had been running a bicycle chop shop.
No one has been arrested.
The Washington State Patrol found a similar operation in a West Olympia encampment a few days later, Wohl said.
In many cases, authorities have a hard time identifying dismantled bicycles and returning them to their owners. The police department stores bike frames, which are often printed with serial numbers or other identifying features, but often recycles more generic pieces, such as wheels, she said.
“If it’s a high-end bike, chances are higher that people will get them back,” Wohl said. “But if people have their bikes stolen and know the serial number or some other identifying factors, we’ll do our best to match the description with what we have.”
Bicycle owners are encouraged to register with the city by bringing their bicycle and identification to the police department. The information will be stored, and if a registered bicycle turns up, the owners will be contacted, Wohl said.
And at the very least, bicycle owners should record bicycle serial numbers themselves and report any thefts to the police.
“Surprisingly, people don’t always report thefts, so we have bikes that go unclaimed,” Wohl said.
Police officials aren’t sure why the number of stolen bicycles has increased so dramatically this year, but Wohl said the trend could be the result of a crackdown on general burglaries during the past year.
“It’s possible that people turned to stealing other things,” Wohl said. “More than likely this is a case of people stealing things to fund their drug addiction.”