ASHLAND — Bicycle thieves in this pedal-happy town are now on notice that the next set of wheels they steal might transport them directly to jail.
The Ashland Police Department has begun a new sting operation that uses an electronic tracking device on a planted bicycle to lure thieves responsible for one of the most persistent property crimes in town.
When the bike is taken, the hidden device alerts police officers, who can track its movements and intercept the thief minutes after the crime.
Since first running the sting Oct. 5, police have arrested or cited five men on a charge of second-degree theft, a Class A misdemeanor. Several other times the bike was recovered but the thief was not found, police said.
The bait bike could be back in a public rack, locked or unlocked, as early as today.
"Our point is, one, stop stealing bikes, and two, that the next time you look at a bike you might think twice about stealing it," Deputy Chief Corey Falls says.
"We're going to keep doing it as long as it gets stolen," Falls says.
For the past year, officers have been kicking around ideas for curbing bicycle thefts that tallied 112 within city limits for the first nine months of 2013. That's up 23 percent from 91 thefts for the same period in 2012.
"For years there's been stolen 'bait cars' for stolen vehicle (stings)," Falls says. "Now we found something that works for bicycles."
Officers bought a $160 device that's available to the general public. It alerts the owner when the bicycle moves and tracks it in real time, allowing officers to converge on the bike and arrest its thief.
The device is disguised to look like a regular part of the bike, but Falls doesn't want to give away any more. That's also why officers have used different bait-bikes so thieves can't catch on, and they have been left locked or unlocked throughout the city and areas within Southern Oregon University — a hotbed for bike thefts, he says.
That's where the first sting was run Oct. 4, Falls says. The bike was left unlocked at an undisclosed location at 11 a.m., he says. By 5 p.m., it was on the move.
"We were pretty surprised that it happened that quickly, actually," he says.
The five men arrested in five different thefts range in age from 28 to 55 years old and live in Ashland, Talent and Medford, police say.
Some also were arrested on narcotics charges as well as outstanding warrants.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.