We’ve all seen the hodge-podge setups around town, with long rows of frankenstein bikes and mismatched parts strewn about the sidewalk. Known as “chop shops,” many of these enclaves are places to fence stolen bicycles so that they may be rebuilt and sold on the black market.
District 8 Supervisor Jeff Sheehy would like to see an end to these ad hoc roadside assembly centers. Last week, he introduced legislation which seeks to stem the practice by providing SFPD with additional enforcement capabilities when approaching alleged chop shops.
“Many of these bicycles are stolen. Very often these bicycles are stolen from young people, people who rely on bicycles as a means to get to and from work,” Sheehy said at the Feb. 28 Board of Supervisors meeting where he introduced the legislation. “The loss of a bicycle could mean a choice between being able to pay rent, buy a new bike.”
The ordinance, if passed, will “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.”
The proposed law defines a chop shop as an operation selling five or more bikes — or no more than three, if parts are missing — a bike frame with either the gear or brake cables cut, or five or more bike parts.
Exempted from the proposed ordinance are yard sales held in front of the property owner’s residence, operations where a single bike is being repaired and the owner is present, and events associated with registered nonprofit organization.
If a cop happens upon a chop shop, the ordinance would grant him or her the right to seize the property and issue a citation, similar to a parking ticket. Appeals of the citation must be filed within 15 days of receipt, and SFPD may levy an impound fee on the recovered items if the actual owner of the property was somehow involved with the chop shop.
The person whose items have been seized has the opportunity to retrieve them if he or she can prove ownership. According to the ordinance, “A person shall be deemed the ‘rightful owner’ if the person can demonstrate with sufficient reliability that he or she is the lawful owner of the seized item, for example, by providing video or photographic evidence indicating ownership of the seized item, by producing a bill of sale, by correctly stating the serial number, or by signing a sworn affidavit in person at an SFPD location.”
Supervisor Sheehy stresses that his legislation will not criminalize some of the most vulnerable residents in San Francisco.
“Right now, the police do not have clear authority to address chop shops,” Sheehy said at last week’s meeting. “This does not allow people to be thrown in jail but allows police to pick up the parts and make sure that the bikes get back to the rightful owners.”
However, according to Kelley Cutler, a human rights organizer at San Francisco’s Coalition on Homelessness, it’s precisely the city’s most vulnerable residents who will be disproportionately affected by the proposed legislation.
“From the beginning, it’s only targeting homeless folks, because the legislation uses words like ‘open air’ and focuses on people in public areas,” Cutler says. “It isn’t affecting the presumably larger operations of people stealing bikes, stripping, and reassembling them in private chop shops. That’s a big concern, from our perspective.”
She also feels the law is redundant, pointing out that there are already laws on the books, such as those pertaining to blocking sidewalks and the sit-lie law, which police may use to clear out these operations.
Cutler added that although San Francisco is still a sanctuary city, uncertainty regarding that protection at the federal level has her group concerned with any legislation which further empowers police to stop citizens on the street.
“It’s another opportunity for police to run warrants and put people in the system,” she explains. “We see a connection there.
“It’s like the War on Drugs, where the focus is going after the little guys for little things but not focusing on the larger issue where it’s more organized,” Cutler continues. “It’s targeting the low-hanging fruit but really missing the bigger issue.”
When further pressed on concerns about targeting the homeless population, Sheehy told SF Weekly via email, “This legislation isn’t about being homeless or not. It’s about addressing bike theft. Selling stolen bikes and bike parts on the street, whether one is homeless or not, shouldn’t be tolerated.”
He also pointed out that the citations would not carry a fee, and are instead meant to help SFPD track the items confiscated and help get them back to their rightful owners.
“My first job here in San Francisco when I moved here in the early 1990s was as a bicycle messenger,” Sheehy wrote. “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.”
The proposed legislation does not currently cite any hard data regarding the extent to which these chop shops are buying or selling stolen goods. This is a concern for local cyclist Allyson Eddy Bravman, who uses biking and Muni as her primary sources for transportation.
“I would like to see a report on what makes chop shops so lucrative. Who ‘buys’ from chop shops? They have everything from cheap to high-end, specialty parts, so someone must be using them,” Eddy Bravman said. “I never hear the cycling community talking about who utilizes chop shops, even though I’m certain I know people with custom bikes built from chop shop parts.
“I wonder if, even within our own community, it is more comfortable to criminalize poverty than to demonize one another,” she continued.
Supervisor Sheehy maintains that the ordinance will reduce bike theft in San Francisco.
“Right now, it’s way too easy to sell stolen bikes on our streets, which encourages bike theft. If it’s easy to sell a stolen bike, more bikes will be stolen,” he wrote. “By providing SFPD with a specific tool to address chop shops, my hope is that we’ll be able to break this cycle and reduce the number of stolen bikes.”