Luring potential thieves with bait bikes is not entrapment, says Ashland police Chief Tighe O’Meara; it’s a way to catch criminals and cut down on local bike thefts.

And it’s working.

O’Meara addressed the issue Thursday, two days after a post on the popular “Ashland Peeps” Facebook page warned Ashlanders about an unlocked bait bike at the bus stop by Bi-Mart, sparking a back-and-forth debate that drew 181 comments and led to an email to O’Meara from Ashland Peeps moderator Sabena Vaughan.

“The bike at the bus stop on Tolman in front of Bi-Mart is an APD entrapment,” read the initial post. “Don’t touch!”

Ashland police began the bait-bike program in October of 2013 to put the kibosh on what was then a growing problem. The first bait bike, deployed in Railroad Park, was worth about $100 and was swiped in less than 45 minutes, O’Meara said.

The program is still going strong with one notable change — the bait bikes now are worth $1,500, a move made to afford the department the ability to charge thieves with felony first-degree theft (items over $1,000) rather than a lesser misdemeanor.

Some of the program’s critics contend that because the bikes are unlocked, good Samaritans merely aiming to protect a stranger’s bike from a would-be thief may be swept up in the sting. O’Meara says APD investigators make no assumptions.

“As I wrote (to Vaughan),” O’Meara said, “the vast majority of everything that is stolen or entered illegally in Ashland is left unsecured. Bikes are no exception to that. So the vast majority of bikes that are stolen are left unlocked. And so, not absolutely but generally speaking, we leave the bait bike unlocked because that’s how people leave their bikes around Ashland. And also … the triggering of the alarm going off if the bike has been taken is just the beginning of the investigation, and if somebody has a plausible explanation for what they are doing, then that’s fine.

"If there’s no crime, there’s no arrest. But if somebody has tried to convert the bike over for their own use, then that’s theft, and there’s going to be an arrest.”

According to O’Meara, 118 bikes were reported stolen in 2012 and 135 in 2013. Since the bait-bike program has started, the number of reported bike thefts dropped to 107 in 2014, 96 in 2015, and 95 in 2016, O’Meara said.

“We didn’t invent this sort of program,” O’Meara said. “This sort of thing happens all over the place. The gist of it is the same. If you take something, even temporarily, that doesn’t belong to you, then you’re committing a theft, and there’s got to be some sanctions against you for doing it.”

Another criticism of the program centers on the price of the bikes — O’Meara wouldn’t say exactly how many bikes APD has, only that it’s a “low number” — and the department’s calculated move to seek felonies rather than misdemeanors.

The department made that change three years ago, he said, because criminals are usually convicted of a lesser charge than what they’re originally charged with. Therefore, he said, when you start with a low-level misdemeanor, by the time the case winds its way through the system, often the charge will be dropped from the criminal’s permanent record.

"So we said, let’s start assuming that things are going to get pled down, assuming that a person’s criminal history is going to be examined, the circumstances are going to be scrutinized — not just by the police department but by the district attorney, by the grand jury, by the defense attorney, by the judge, by the jury — let’s start with a low-level felony and it will get knocked down from there.

"So this way, we also have the ability if we do catch career criminals, which we have — that steal, steal, steal, no matter how many times they get busted for it — then we’re hitting them with something more substantial that the district attorney can actually work with instead of a low-level misdemeanor.”

The bait-bike photo on Ashland Peeps isn't the first time somebody has tried to thwart the department's program, O'Meara said. In the past, notes warning of the sting have been left with the bikes. Once, the tracking device was damaged. Another time, a bait bike was dismantled.

Vaughan, who said she turned off the comments section of the original Ashland Peeps post after users began name-calling, became especially aware of the issue recently when her son’s bike was stolen from Ashland Middle School after being left there, locked, overnight.

Vaughan, who said she moved to Ashland 12 years ago, emailed O’Meara Tuesday and asked him to respond to the thread. O’Meara responded Wednesday morning, explaining in the beginning of his email that he had seen the Ashland Peeps thread and was wondering how long it would take for somebody to “go to the source.”

Vaughan was pleased with O’Meara’s 463-word response, which she posted on the Ashland Peeps page. As of Thursday morning, she said, Ashland Peeps has 6,907 members.

“I do think he made his case,” she said, “although I also can understand what people are trying to say about their concerns for others just trying to do the right thing, and I think those are valid concerns. … All of those concerns that people were expressing were valid, which is why I left the post up instead of just deleting the whole thing, because it got crazy. Because I wanted people — especially city officials, who monitor the page; especially the Ashland police department, which monitors the page — so see what their citizens are actually feeling and the discussions they’re having.

“It’s like being invited to coffee with people at a table where they’re having difficult discussions and they’re not happy with the services that the city and the police are providing for them. People have a right to voice, for sure.”

— Joe Zavala is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@dailytidings.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Joe_Zavala99.