Chop Shop Debate Continues Amid Community Backlash

Bike theft runs rampant in S.F., but many believe a new legislation won't nip it at its source.

The proposed legislation would criminalize the possession or sale of more than five bike parts on public property. (Photo by Mike Koozmin)

It was a cool San Francisco evening when Michael Rene Armida said goodbye to his friends at the Rite Spot and pushed open the bar’s double doors. At the bike rack on the corner of 17th and Folsom streets, he saw what every cyclist dreads: nothing but a broken U-lock on the sidewalk. His green SOMA Saga, which he’d built himself, was gone.

Armida took to social media to share the bad news. “If you see this bike around town, please let me know,” he wrote. “Identifying features: stickers with bad cat jokes on the fork crown and rear fender.” His friends rallied. Several went out of their way to peruse known chop-shop locations around SoMa and flea markets in the East Bay. Many returned to his Facebook post to share stories of six-tent chop shops and photos of suspects. But four weeks later, the bike is still missing. In a group that lauds the phrase “death to bike thieves,” it would seem that cyclists would welcome any attempt to quell the criminal activity. But even the wrath of a biker who’s lost their steed mellows in the face of a new piece of legislation, which, despite its noble intentions, just doesn’t quite sit right.

District 8 Sup. Jeff Sheehy is behind the proposal, which initially authorized the San Francisco Police Department “to prohibit the assembly, disassembly, sale, offer of sale, distribution, or offer of distribution on public property or public rights-of-way of bicycles and bicycle parts.” To separate a cyclist changing a wheel on the side of the road from a chop shop, the ordinance would officially define the latter as an operation selling five or more bikes or bike parts.

“My first job here in San Francisco when I moved here in the early 1990s was as a bicycle messenger,” Sheehy told SF Weekly back in March. “I barely scraped by, but my bicycle allowed me to survive. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen piles of bikes and bike parts on our sidewalks. As someone who gets around primarily by foot and by public transportation, I see these operations all the time. When I got to the Board a few months ago, I was shocked to hear that the police currently have very little recourse to address these enterprises.”

Like many sneaky bills and propositions that rear their heads in San Francisco, this one sounds fantastic at first read. Finally, the police would take the side of cyclists, and help them keep their bikes. But dig just a little below the surface, and problems bubble up. What if someone who lives on the streets repairs their friends’ bikes to make a little extra dough? And how would police determine the ownership of a bike if it wasn’t registered, but was instead bought with cash? The law appears to be one that targets those without homes, with little justification.

From the get-go, the Coalition on Homelessness has adamantly opposed this legislation. In an op-ed submitted to our sister paper, the Examiner, Executive Director Jennifer Friedenbach blasted the plan. “Instead of trying solutions that have worked in other jurisdictions, such as focusing on prevention and the market for stolen bikes, some of our local politicians are using the issue to play on voters’ frustrations and anger about not only bike theft but also tent encampments, combining the two issues into one piece of an ‘all show and no go’ legislation,” she wrote.

Friedenbach was not alone. Sheehy says his office has received more than 770 phone calls about this legislation, 60 percent of which came from residents in the Mission District and 26 percent from SoMa, both neighborhoods where bikes are frequently spotted in homeless encampments.

Many of the calls came from cyclists, who despite being frequent victims of theft, are unsure about this legislation. Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, penned a letter to the Board of Supervisors Land Use Committee earlier this month, which he also published on the advocacy group’s website. In it, he opposed the plan as written, and instead urged the supervisors to review a 2013 memorandum aimed at decreasing bike theft. One item listed, the creation of a citywide bike registration program, has helped police reunite cyclists with their stolen bikes through a citywide serial-number database. But other suggestions — such as the establishment of bike-theft prevention unit within SFPD or a comprehensive analysis of bicycle-theft data — were never implemented. Lastly, Wiedenmeier reminded the board that bike theft only exists because of demand.

“We call on the city to combat bicycle theft in a manner that focuses on the market for stolen bikes: the individuals who purchase stolen bikes to resell, often online or in other jurisdictions,” he wrote.

On Tuesday, Sheehy announced he’d amended the legislation. Instead of police enforcing the chop-shop law, the Department of Public Works would take on the task of issuing citations and removing property they believe to be stolen. Those who wish to appeal the seizure and reclaim the items would have 30 days to do so. DPW will hold the property for 60 days before disposing of it. “This remains a contentious issue,” Sheehy says, thanking both the Bicycle Coalition and the city for its feedback. The Board of Supervisors will return to hear the legislation again in September, once they are back from a month-long recess.

Armida is not convinced the legislation is up to par.

“I’m wary of anything that increases the antagonistic contact between SFPD and the poor communities of the city,” he says. “People don’t steal bikes because they’re evil. They do it because it’s a low-risk path to a buck. You don’t lift people from poverty via punishment. I’d much rather we remove the motivation for theft via safety-net programs. Take care of people, and they’ll do good things.

“Even though I just had my bike stolen,” he adds, “I still have that faith.”

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