The pleasure of owning a bike, like anything else, comes with the possibility of having it stolen. Get careless with your ride in Oak Park, though, and "possible" quickly turns into "likely. Bike thefts have been a sad fact of life in Oak Park for decades. However in 2004 reports of bike thefts skyrocketed, rising nearly 800 percent to 212 after a quiet 2003 that saw just 27 bikes reported stolen. This year has seen fewer thefts so far than at this time last year, but bikes are still disappearing at a strong pace, especially this summer, with 89 taken in thefts, burglaries or robberies through July 30. Ranging in value from under $100 up to $600, the bikes were taken from garages, automobiles, and yards, with the majority stolen off the street or from bike racks. Several were taken by force, or even at gunpoint.
However, most all of those thefts, experts say, are by amateurs?#34;kids simply looking to acquire a bike, or trade up for a better one. What's not happening, say both Oak Park police and the Cook County Sheriff's Department, is any sort of professional fencing operation. Oak Park Deputy Chief of Police Robert Scianna said he's unaware of any organized, professional theft ring working to steal and fence bikes. Penny Maytack, a spokesperson for the Cook County Sheriff's Department, said the same, noting that her department is not aware of any bike theft or fencing operations within her department's wide-ranging jurisdiction.
Oak Park figures seem to back up those contentions. Scianna said that Oak Park police have arrested five adults and 37 juveniles so far this year, most of them since May. In one 3-week period alone in May, at least 30 bikes were stolen or attempted, with over a dozen people?#34;nearly all juveniles?#34;arrested. On two separate occasions police arrested six youths on a single day.
The bulk of those bike thefts are committed by young West Side Chicago residents who venture into Oak Park and return home with a stolen ride.
"The vast majority of kids we arrest are not residents of Oak Park," said Scianna.
The reason, he added, is economics, not race.
"The vast majority of kids [stealing bikes] don't live in a family structure where they can [buy bikes] for their kids."
Scianna said the problem isn't going to go away, no matter how much attention police focus on it. What's required, he said, is care and vigilance by bike owners and their neighbors.
Care, however, appears to be in short supply. A walking survey through the Oak Park and River Forest High School mall last summer, at the height of the 2004 wave of bike thefts, showed that over 90 percent of bikes parked there were not adequately secured.
"Unsecured, unlocked?#34;it's not only bikes, it's vehicles," said Scianna, who pointed out that adults around the village also regularly lose valuables due to conveniently open vehicles, not to mention garages and even residences. Not that Oak Park is unique in its carelessness. One hundred bicycle thefts were reported to the Naperville Police Department in 2004, and of those, 45 were stolen from either an open or unlocked garage, the owner's driveway or front yards. And 84 percent of the time the bicycles were left unlocked.
Without care and attention by bike owners, as well as an investment in effective theft prevention hardware, it's all a bit like holding back the sea.
"It's a constant challenge," said Matt Ellmann, the park district's superintendent of Recreation. "Kids and youth in general need constant reminders. They forget the lessons until they've learned it the hard way."
Should the worst-case scenario occur and a bike be stolen, the best hope of ever getting it back lies in registering the bike, either locally or nationally. Again, though, many bikes aren't registered, despite efforts by police and other officials to convince owners to do so.
"We try to register bikes for free, and there are [still] bikes that get stolen that aren't registered," said Scianna.