If your lock gets cut and your bike disappears in midtown Manhattan, you should call the cops. Not because you need to report the crime—because there's a good chance the cops stole the bike themselves.
I first heard about this practice from my friend Kevin Kenkel, an employee at New York's Museum of Art and Design, who rides his bike from Williamsburg to his office in Midtown Manhattan nearly every weekday. When he went to retrieve it on the evening of September 4, it was gone.
The bike, which was locked to a street sign on Broadway between 58th Street and Columbus Circle, had been seized by the NYPD, but Kevin had no way of knowing that—the officer who'd taken it left no notice. A security guard at the museum suggested that Kevin check the police department's Midtown North precinct, nearby on West 54th Street. He stopped by that evening, and it was there.
The police, it seems, are in the habit of clipping locks and confiscating ostensibly legally-parked bikes in the area. An officer on duty told Kevin that the bike renters who swarm Columbus Circle regularly steal bicycles, and that police will sometimes preemptively seize them as a preventative measure. "He explained that the bike guys are stealing and selling to tourists, and so the police, in order to crack down on that, are just removing any bicycle that's locked to city property," Kevin told me. "Any bike that's not locked up to a bike rack. And there are no bike racks near my office."
Michael Dugan, a community affairs officer at the Midtown North precinct, confirmed the practice. There is a problem with theft, he told me, and also with bike renters taking up spaces that commuting cyclists might otherwise use. It doesn't matter whether it's a rental bike or not, he said—if it's locked up to city property near Columbus Circle, it's liable to be confiscated. Seizings aren't limited to street signs and light posts, he added: if there are many bikes locked to a single rack—a tactic renters often use—officers will clip the locks and take them.
The precinct eventually returned Kevin's Trek 7.2—a hybrid road bike that retails for around $500—but not until the next day, after he provided a credit card receipt as proof of purchase and waited around for several hours. His lock, which had presumably been cut when the bike was seized, was not returned to him.
When I asked Dugan whether officers leave a notice when they confiscate bicycles, he scoffed: "Where would they leave a note?" I pressed the issue, arguing that Kevin had no way to know that his bike wasn't taken by a thief. "He got his bike back, didn't he?", he responded.
Dugan claimed that it is illegal to lock your bike to city property, but according to Steve Vaccaro, an attorney at the cycling-centric law firm Vaccaro & White, that isn't necessarily the case. Vaccaro said he does not know of any city or state law that prohibits the practice, and pointed to a 2005 case called Bray v. City of New York as legal precedent. In that case, cyclists affiliated with the monthly Critical Mass bike ride successfully sued the city in federal court after police officers cut their locks and confiscated their bikes. "If you're talking about [locking to] a city-owned street fixture," Vaccaro said, "I don't know of NYPD having the right to take those without some form of notice."
"I didn't do anything illegal but they still confiscated the bicycle," Kevin told me, adding that he was "pretty discouraged" by the experience. We're unsure how often this kind of thing happens, but it sounds like he isn't the only one. If you've experienced something similar, email me at email@example.com or leave your story in the comments.
[Image via Kevin Kenkel]