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A new life for stolen bikes

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Under its Bike Donation Project program, the Petaluma Police Department has developed two new ways to manage the dispersal of unclaimed bicycles. Since 2015, bikes of modest value are periodically distributed among local nonprofits serving the needy — more than 75 bikes so far. More valuable bikes will now be auctioned off, online, under a new contract between the department and PropertyRoom.com, a national auction house.

Bicycles, local police say, often lead picaresque lives.

Many are lost or stolen, but some manage to come back, usually incognito, from wherever they have been. These returnees tend to congregate at the police station, where they are stored in the Evidence Room for 90 days. If unclaimed at the end of this period, the bikes are handed over to the Bike Donation Project, where they are conditioned to serve new owners.

“Every three or four months we purge unclaimed bikes,” said Jennifer Pritchard, the department’s volunteer coordinator since 2015.

The organizations currently receiving bikes include the Petaluma People Services Center; Mentor Me Petaluma, a 15-year-old nonprofit that provides at-risk youth with adult mentors; and the Children’s Village of Sonoma. Slated for bikes in the future are the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS) and Sonoma Advocates for Youth.

The Bike Donation Project enjoys local support from private donors. The Elks Club, for example, holds an annual breakfast to raise funds for the project, Pritchard said.

“We want the unclaimed bikes to go back into our community,” said Pritchard. “But first we turn them over to our volunteers, who are really good at fixing up bikes.”

Pritchard said her volunteers take pride in releasing bikes that are safe and functional. The Project’s chief bike mechanic is Max Murray, 17, a junior at Maria Carillo High School. As a volunteer for Petaluma police, Max makes sure all bikes funneled back into the community are functional and safe. He currently has eleven of the program’s bikes under repair in his garage.

“I’ve been a tinkerer all my life,” Murray said, “and I’ve always liked volunteering.”

He learned bike repair from a professional bike man, Ben Stone, who mentored Murray until Stone’s retirement. In addition to school and volunteer work, Murray also works part time at Trek Bikes.

While most bike owners don’t bother to register their bikes with the police, Pritchard says this is a mistake. When the police receive a registered bike, they can easily determine the owner and make contact. But when there is no registration, the bike disappears into the Evidence Room, where the public is not allowed.

“I have the only key,” said Kerri Neve, the department’s evidence technician and property clerk. If she has the registration number for an unclaimed bike, she can check the evidence log and see if the bike is there. This simple and straightforward process breaks down when there is no registration. Then the onus is on the owner to try to determine whether their bike is in custody.

The registration sticker provided by the police is durable and hard to obscure or remove. The department recommends that owners place it in a visible place, such as the top of the top tube, so that a potential thief sees that the bike is easily identifiable by the police.

Most owners of a lost or stolen bike don’t report the disappearance to the police. This is another mistake, Pritchard says, because such reports help police monitor the extent and patterns of bike theft. Even if the bike is unregistered, the owner should report loss or theft.

Additionally, when someone finds a lost or stolen bike and turns it in to the police, that person is entitled to claim the bike themselves, after ninety days, if the original owner has not claimed the bike.

A personal note: The cheap but beloved bicycle of this reporter was stolen last year. The bike was locked to a bike stand in a shopping center at noon. The thief cut the lock and left it lying on the ground, sending a message that I took to heart when I bought my next lock.

I had not registered the bike, nor did I report the theft.

Now I know better.