LINCOLN — Campus bike racks are full this fall as students take advantage of pleasant autumn weather and try to avoid parking costs.
But at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, squeezed between new Schwinns and dad's old 10-speed, is a different kind of bike — a “bait bike.”
With campus bike thefts averaging 96 a year over the past decade, the UNL Police Department decided to take the offensive a few years ago by leaving bait bikes at racks on City Campus and East Campus.
A bait bike looks just like any other bike, but it has a hidden GPS tracker. Some are locked and some are free-standing, but if a bait bike moves, UNL Police officers know exactly where to find it — as well as the unwary thief.
“We've arrested everyone from students who see an opportunity to career criminals,” said Koan Nissen, UNL Police education and personnel officer.
Many of the bait bikes are decommissioned patrol bikes, newly outfitted with the trackers, and repurposed to blend in at the racks.
The first year, 2011, stolen bait bikes led to seven arrests. There were five in 2012 and six in 2013, according to UNL Police Sgt. John Backer. The total number of bikes stolen hasn't changed much, but word has been getting out, and stealing a bike has become more of a gamble.
“On one arrest I was a part of, the guy actually knew we were tracking bikes,” Backer said. “He said 'I knew I took the wrong bike!' ”
Bike theft remains the top campus crime, Backer said. At the end of September, 68 stolen bikes had been reported to UNL Police since January.
UNL isn't the only campus baiting possible thieves. In the past few years, campuses from Boston to Austin, Texas, have implemented similar systems. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, police hand out pamphlets and stickers stamped with the warning “This could be a bait bike.”
But other NU campuses haven't used the system yet.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha has had two reported bike thefts in the past two months and has seen no need to use the system, a spokeswoman said.
The University of Nebraska at Kearney primarily focuses on educating students how to properly secure their bikes to avoid thefts.
At UNL, theft charges depend on the fair market value of the bicycle.
“If someone has a Gary Fisher, we could be talking felony charges here,” Nissen said. “But something below the $500 value, we're talking low-grade misdemeanor.”
Nissen said few students realize they can register their bikes and valuables with campus police. If a stolen item is sold or pawned, police can often cross-reference the serial number to locate and return the item.
“If you have something with a serial number on it, write it down and keep it in your home,” Nissen said.
UNL Police don't rely solely on baiting bike-snatching criminals. Officers have installed video surveillance at bike racks near the Nebraska Union and main academic facilities, Backer said. They also teach students which bike locks are most effective (U-shaped rather than chain or cable).
“We recognize that bicycles are some students' primary means of transportation,” Nissen said. “We're less concerned about the bicycle and more worried about people's quality of life.”