28 October 2011

The New York Avenue bicycle thief caught - and released

At the beginning of October, I caught a young boy in the act of stealing a bicycle wheel at the New York Avenue Metro station. Last night, I helped police finally catch him. But he wasn't arrested.

Jaime and I were taking a quick walking tour of NoMa with ANC 6C04 commissioner Tony Goodman when we saw the boy ride his bike past us. An extra bicycle wheel was hanging from the handlebars. I recognized him immediately, and called 911 to report what we saw. The police arrived a couple minutes later, took a report, and promised to check the area where we saw the boy going to see what they could find.

Ten minutes later, we were at the corner of 1st and M NE, in front of the CVS, when we saw the boy bike past us again. Jaime saw a police cruiser coming south on 1st Street, and I flagged them down. The police asked me to jump in, and we headed the wrong way down M Street toward North Capitol, where the boy was headed.

At the corner of M and North Capitol, we caught up to him. The officer driving the car chirped the siren, and pulled to the curb when the boy started biking faster. Both officers (from the 1st District) got out of the car and started questioning the boy about the wheel we had seen him carrying minutes earlier.

He denied knowing anything about it. The officers talked to him for a few minutes until a gentleman showed up. It turned out this was the boy's father. More questioning eventually led the boy to admit that the wheel was in his room in their house. His father sent him home to bring it back to the police.

It turns out the boy was 13. The police didn't arrest him, and I don't know what his father did or said after we drove away. I hope that he realizes what he's been doing is wrong, and I hope (at least) he really knows he's being watched now.

Remember, keep using a cable lock and a u-lock when you park at the New York Avenue Metro station. Don't leave a wheel unlocked where this boy, or anyone else for that matter, could walk away with it and take it home.

Crossposted at Greater Greater Washington.

17 October 2011

Halloween tour of the McMillan Sand Filtration Site

Are you curious about what it's like behind the fence at the corner of North Capitol and Michigan Avenue? Have you ever wanted to step inside one of those vine-covered concrete silos, or see the catacombs below them?

Now's your chance! On October 29th at 11 a.m., you can go on a tour of the site. Learn the history, learn about the potential development planned for the site, and see something unique that you just can't do every day!

The information is on the attached flyer to the right. If you can't see it, or you have questions, please contact:

Gwen Southerland, gwensoutherland61@gmail.com


John Salatti, John.Salatti@gmail.com or (202) 986-2592

(I took the tour myself a couple years ago. It's fascinating and well worth the time!)

14 October 2011

Mayor Gray must refute mediocrity, or fall victim to it

Photo of Lon Walls from Twitter.
Members of Vincent Gray's administration have been both quoted and sourced on background as being unhappy with a city employee going above and beyond the call of duty on the job. The mayor must explicitly quash such thinking if he doesn't want to send a signal to all other city employees not to work very hard.

Lon Walls, the communications director for DC's the Fire & Emergency Medical Services (FEMS), gave Mark Segraves some revealing statements regarding the ongoing saga of Pete Piringer, who ran the DC Fire & EMS twitter feed (@dcfireems).

Walls told WTOP, "We had a discussion, I told Pete he was going out of his lanes in terms of other agencies." One of those "lanes" apparently included tweeting about fallen trees and crime scenes. It seems other agencies were miffed that @dcfireems was tweeting about things slightly outside their core competency, and that was "making [other agencies] look slow and unresponsive."

Washington Life Magazine listed Walls as one of the "Titans of PR" last year. He ran Walls Communications prior to becoming the head of communications at FEMS. (It appears that the regular website of his firm has been scaled back, with a more detailed site residing here.)

The site boasts of "transforming [communications] challenges into successful and measurable results." Is less communication with residents the kind of results the city is looking for? (Incidentally, Walls is on Twitter, but he doesn't appear to have mastered use of it as a communication forum.)

Put simply, Pete Piringer ran a fantastic service while working at FEMS. I'm one of the three people who worked on compiling the Struck in DC (@struckdc) twitter feed, and we relied on timely information from @dcfireems to keep people aware of how many pedestrians and cyclists had been victims of incidents involving vehicles in the city for over a year. Without the information that Piringer supplied, our service has withered on the vine.

In September, the feed went silent. Concerned reporters and blogs initially thought Piringer had just gone on vacation, but officials later revealed that they'd stopped the feed.

Walls told DCist, "I'd rather be slow and right than fast and wrong," and, "Social media is for parties. We ain't givin' parties." Instead of a sneering, derisive taunt, Walls should be able to see, as a communications professional, the value of actually "communicating" with citizens.

In response to objections, the Mayor promised on September 22 that @dcfireems would not be "filtered" or "silenced." This temporarily assuaged frazzled nerves, but the goodwill was short-lived. The @dcfireems feed has not mentioned a single struck pedestrian or cyclist since August 29. While it would be wonderful if no such crashes have occurred since then, we already know that's sadly not the case.

Since September 22, @dcfireems has tweeted more about the fire chief's weight and pictures of the mayor with McGruff the Crime Dog than the information it was known for prior to September 1. That's a shame. A valuable service is gone.

Meanwhile, Piringer has been moved to work for the Office of the Secretary of the District of Columbia, where he will work on publicizing things like ceremonial documents.

Because Pete Piringer was busting his butt, he got busted down a notch (contrary to what Lon Walls would like to have us believe). Instead of other agencies stepping up their game to try to match his, we instead get the lowest common denominator. It's depressing to think that might be official policy from the executive branch.

Members of the Gray administration have essentially declared that those who perform above and beyond the call of duty will be punished for their hard work. If Mayor Gray himself does not see this for the "buck stops here" situation that this is, we can only assume he condones such thinking. If I were an ambitious employee looking to make my name as a civil servant, I certainly would look somewhere besides the District of Columbia to ply my trade.

Crossposted at Greater Greater Washington.

05 October 2011

The New York Avenue bicycle thief caught in the act

Last night, after stopping at the grocery store on my way home, I came face-to-face with the New York Avenue Metro station bicycle thief. I suppose the odds of it happening were somewhat high, since I spend so much time biking to and from the station, but I never would have expected our interaction to happen the way it did...

I alighted from a Glenmont-bound red line train just after 6:30 p.m., and left the station to walk to the Harris Teeter down the block. After getting a couple things at the store, I walked back to the station to get my bicycle. I stopped at the newspaper boxes near the station's M Street entrance, grabbed a paper, and began walking to the other entrance where my bicycle was parked.

When I was about 100 feet from the bike racks, I realized one of the bikes was moving like it was being jerked back and forth. The front of the bike was obscured by one of the station's concrete support pylons, so I couldn't see why this was happening. The person who was shaking the bike to see if it was locked up stepped into view, and started removing the rear wheel from the bike. It took me a moment to realize what was happening, but only a moment until I knew that I was witnessing a bicycle theft in action.

What surprised me was that the thief was a kid. He couldn't have been more than 10 years old.

I walked right up to him and asked him matter-of-factly, "What are you doing?" The kid replied that he needed a rear wheel for his other bike. He claimed this bike was his, and that the lock was broken, keeping him from taking the whole bike home. I called him out on his story, but he insisted the bike was his and that his dad had bought it for him at "the bike shop down the street."

"What street? What bike shop?" I demanded.

"Over there, by Safeway," he said. The only bike shop that came close to fitting that description is BicycleSPACE in Mt. Vernon Triangle. They don't sell the bike pictured above, though. I wanted him to tell me what brand his bike was, and he turned his head to look at the bike.

"No way!" I shouted, putting the paper in front of his face. "You can't look at the bike to answer that. You don't have a clue, and that isn't your bike."

At this point, we stared at each other for a second. It felt like five minutes. Part of me wanted to grab the wheel, yell at the kid, and tell him to get the hell out of there. But some rational part of me thought he'd give up the game and leave. That didn't happen.

He insisted again that this was his bike, and said, "I even have a lock like this," while pointing at the bike's lock. Of course, he should have said the lock was his lock, not like his lock. At this point, a good interrogation might have gotten him to trip up and really contradict himself, but he's a kid! We stared at each other again, and I asked, "You're absolutely sure you're telling me the truth?" He nodded and started to walk away with the rear wheel.

I knew that if I touched the kid, even in an attempt to detain him for the police, I'd probably end up being charged with assault. I did pull out my phone to call the police. He knew exactly what I was doing, and started to run. While I was on the phone with the operator, I hurriedly unlocked my own bike, intending to follow him and figure out where he lived.

I got the bike unlocked, ended the 911 call (with the operator telling me there wasn't much they could do), and took off in the direction the boy had run. When I reached M Street, I asked a woman there if she had seen a boy with a bicycle wheel running by. She directed me towards Harris Teeter. When I got there, I asked the same question to some people standing there, and they pointed towards North Capitol Street.

As I moved down the unit block of M Street NE, I saw him crossing North Capitol Street and turning down the alley behind the Sibley Plaza Apartments (the large apartment building on the southwest corner of M and North Capitol). By the time I got there, he was gone. Again, I asked people who were sitting and standing around if they had seen the kid. All responded with a negative.

I biked through the plaza and parking lot between the apartments and the Sursum Corda cooperative, looking for a sign of the boy. Finding nothing, I went back to the station and talked to the station manager, letting him know what I saw. He mentioned that he'd like to start parking his bicycle at the station, and would love to see whoever is stealing bikes get caught. He also said that it's likely that police would only arrest someone if they saw them in the act, or if someone could make a positive identification of the perpetrator.


So, in the end, I have no idea if this kid is responsible for every bike theft and vandalization at the New York Avenue station, but I know this one was his doing. I spent a couple minutes looking at his face, though. I know exactly what he looks like. The police have my phone number, and if they wanted to pick up a couple 10-year-olds from around the area and ask me to choose one, and if they were to investigate this crime and identify suspects, I'm sure I could give a positive identification.

The broader question here, of course, is why are little kids stealing bike parts? What can be done to stop this behavior? I have my doubts that punitive action against their parents would alleviate the situation.

03 October 2011

To address bicycle crime, Metro PD should take it seriously

WMATA is trying to fight bicycle crime, the Examiner reported last week, and theft has declined somewhat this year. My experience with an a vandalized bike shows a few ways they can continue to improve.

On Thursday, September 22, on my way home from work and a community meeting, I stopped to pick up my bicycle at the New York Avenue Metro station. Nearby was another bicycle, with many of its parts missing, shown at right.

Crime needs to be reported, otherwise the police have no idea where they need to focus their attention. But when I called the Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD), the dispatcher told me that he couldn't take a report since I wasn't the bicycle owner.

I informed him that I had been able to do so before, and had called in multiple bicycles that had been similarly vandalized at that station. He promptly hung up on me.

The following Monday, while retrieving my bicycle after a day of work and community meetings, I ran into an MTPD officer at the station. He saw me approaching the bicycle racks and asked, "Is your bike still there?"

Sure, it was meant to be a joke to lighten the mood, but given the knowledge I have of what has been happening at the station and my most recent interaction with the MTPD dispatch, I didn't find it particularly funny. I told him, "Mine's fine, but I can't say the same for this guy," while pointing at the frame that remained locked up, sans wheels and gears, next to my bike.

The officer came over to look at it. He thought that the bike might have been stolen, locked up by a thief, and then vandalized by someone else. I told him about my attempt to call the crime in, and how the dispatcher rebuffed my plea for help. He mentioned that a sticker could be put on the bike (as in the photo below), then told me to have a good evening.

It's worth noting that the bicycle frame in the first photo was removed by Wednesday evening, but the one in the photo above has been there for weeks.

In the Examiner article, Metro Transit Police Chief Michael Taborn blames the victims of these crimes for allowing their bikes to be stolen and vandalized. "Many buy expensive bikes but buy inexpensive locks," he says, and while personal observation tells me that there certainly are bicycles that haven't been properly secured at the Metro station, there is also a lack of seriousness on the part of Taborn's force regarding crime.

If the attitude from the top of the MTPD is dismissive of bicycle-related crime, it's not surprising to see the rest of the force serving beneath him being apathetic about it as well. That's a real shame, and it's something that I hope will change. Blaming the victim and not accepting help from civilians when it's offered will keep MTPD from being as effective as it could be.

Cross-posted at Greater Greater Washington.