Police arrested a suspected bicycle thief in South Park on August 5, after neighborhood residents used a location-based social media website to raise alerts about the crimes and disseminate a description of the suspect.
NextDoor.com is an online community based on users' home addresses, giving them access to a virtual bulletin board visible to neighbors within a range of adjacent neighborhoods. Neighbors use the site to announce garage sales, lost dogs, and local political happenings.
Over the course of July, South Park residents used the site to trade information about a spate of brazen bike thefts and attempts that followed a similar pattern: a suspect would enter a backyard or garage, often during daylight hours, take a bicycle, then abandon a smaller or older bicycle nearby. On some occasions, the alleged thief would return to the same home the next day to recover the abandoned bike, or steal another.
"Apparently he's switching bikes all over the place," said one neighbor who got involved in tracking the suspect's actions. She says she spotted him in front of her house, peering into her parked car. When she confronted him, he reportedly said "I didn't take anything. Your windows were down but I didn't take anything."
A second neighbor said she heard a noise from her garage around 11 p.m. one recent night. "I opened the kitchen door and he had my bike, and dropped it when I yelled," she said.
Another said, "I was gardening when I first noticed there was a bike on its kickstand in front of my house." When he noticed the bike was still there hours later, he decided to put it in his garage until he could determine who it belonged to. "That's when I noticed my own bike was gone," he explained. The next morning, he returned to discover that the abandoned bike had been stolen from his garage overnight.
Several posts and dozens of responses related to bike theft were shared on NextDoor.com in July, one including a photograph taken of a suspect while he trespassed a neighbor's fenced backyard.
A Central Division detective sergeant investigating the thefts confirmed that the arrested suspect had been apprehended thanks to a neighbor who was jogging through the neighborhood, spotted the suspect, and reported his whereabouts to police. The detective said he could neither confirm nor deny the suspect in custody was the same person from the photograph without jeopardizing the case.
However, he did confirm the suspect in question had a prior narcotics-related arrest. Also that he may have been returning to the scene of a prior crime: "We were able to establish an attempted burglary that happened to be at the same location as a completed burglary from a couple days ago."
While the frequency of bike thefts reported on NextDoor.com went up in July, the detective said the overall number bike thefts in the area has actually been consistent. "Honestly, it hasn't even been an increase, it's been steady." He added, "We get certain arrests, but unfortunately they don't stay in custody very long," citing last year's passage of Proposition 47, which reduced nonviolent property crimes such as bike theft to a misdemeanor.
"Bike thefts are a huge problem for us," he said, "As targets they're really easy." He pointed out that even when people use bike locks. "Bolt cutters take seconds to use."
However, he did praise the sort of community involvement that aided police with this case. "It was awesome, the gentleman this morning helping out. The public's involvement calling us, it was essential in getting an arrest." And it's not the first time this particular website has help community policing. "We had a case not long ago where a female was involved in a similar kind of case," he said. "Nextdoor.com was also helpful in that case."