Stolen Bikes

Once in a while people ask about stolen bikes, or about the piles of bikes at homeless encampments and wondering what the police can do about them. Here is information from Mary Amberg, our SPD Crime Prevention Coordinator. I took notes from our phone conversation, but any misinformation is mine.

First and foremost, it is very helpful to record for your records your bike’s serial number. Look online for how to find the number on the frame. Take a photo of your bike, too. For a safe place to keep track of this information, you can register the bike on the national bike index at, but note that SPD doesn’t check recovered bikes there; it only checks them in SPD’s crime report database. It also helps SPD if you make your bike unique somehow – put stickers or tape on various parts, get a unique paint job, or engrave parts with your initials, etc.

The best hope of SPD being able to help get a stolen bike back is if you report it stolen and provide its serial number and unique features. You can report a stolen bike after the fact on the on-line reporting page: You can also report the theft after the fact by calling the non-emergency line at 206-625-5011. If you see your bike being stolen, call 911 to report a crime in progress. For bikes reported after the fact, there is usually no follow-up investigation due to limited detective staff and lack of leads. The value of reporting is that if bikes with serial numbers are recovered by SPD later, the numbers are run through the reporting database and if matches are found, the bikes can be returned to their owners.

On another front, there is one SPD officer who deals exclusively with bikes. He works across all the precincts, checking shops, and trying to break up bike theft rings. He has been pretty successful making a lot of bike busts.

Bikes that are picked up by SPD are stored in the evidence warehouse for about 6 months. You can call the warehouse at 206-684-8720. But realize that if you don’t have a serial number or your bike has no unique features, and you just say your bike, for instance, is a blue Schwinn, staff isn’t going to be able to identify which of the couple dozen blue Schwinns in the warehouse is yours.

At homeless encampments, police can’t just assume piles of bikes are stolen. They can go into encampments to look for a stolen bike if there is cause to think it’s there. In general, there are way too many encampments to go through them looking for bikes reported stolen. And they can only inspect bikes that are outside. SPD must get a warrant to search inside a tent. This was established in a court case, Washington vs Pippin, which decided a person living in a tent is entitled to constitutional privacy protection like any other person has in their dwelling.

Bikes in the encampments are usually only dealt with during encampment cleanups done by the Navigation Team. When the team asks campers if bikes are theirs and they say Yes, SPD must treat them like personal property and store them so the campers can pick them up later. If they say No, staff run the serial numbers to see if they have been reported stolen, and if so, returns them to their owners. If there are no matches, the bikes are taken to the evidence warehouse and their serial numbers are put into the database. If there are bike parts in the camp that don’t have serial numbers, they are usually disposed of like other garbage in the camp.



1 comment to Stolen Bikes

  • Emily J

    Just to share my own personal experience with getting a bike stolen: I very foolishly left my bike locked to the rack on my car overnight. When I got up in the morning the very stout lock had been cut with bolt cutters and the bike was gone. Left in its place was a “fixie” and a helmet with obscene drawings on it in Sharpie. Because my bike was more in value than what the Police website says you are supposed to report online, I called the police to report the theft. I called 6 days in a row, each time speaking to a different officer. The first one wanted to know my name and date of birth, and when I asked why my birthdate was relevant, she got flustered. She said an officer would come out to the house sometime between 10am and 10pm. When I said that I had to travel out of town that afternoon she said that she would have to cancel my report – she couldn’t even file it. I called the next day from where I was out of town, and the next operator I spoke to said that he couldn’t file my report that day, since I was not home, but if I phoned the next day (a Friday) that there should be an officer there to speak to take my report even though I was out of town. I called the next day only to be told that officers that deal with that sort of report don’t work weekends. I called Monday and was told that an officer would come out sometime before 10pm, to take my report, and remove the fixie since it was evidence and might have fingerprints on it. No one ever showed up or phoned me back. As it happens, I had registered my bike online on, and someone on 23rd ave found it on his property the morning his neighbor’s motorscooter was stolen. So my story has a happy ending, but the moral is: Register your bike online, with photos; don’t rely even on a U-lock if you can avoid it, because the criminal gangs masquerading as homeless people have power tools to cut them; and don’t hold your breath waiting for the police to help you.

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