Bristol motorcycling’s non-caped crusaders
In Part 1 of the Great Stolen Motorcycle Recovery Swindle, Marc looked at the state-sanctioned mugging surrounding recovered stolen bikes.
Here in Part 2, he meets a group of heroes from Bristol who are doing something about it.
Bristol bikers have two problems – a very active group of individuals stealing bikes for fun, and a system that can financially penalise owners if their bikes are found.
Stolen Motorbike Recovery Bristol are a bunch of ordinary guys who are working with the police to return bikes to owners, to avoid the charges we’ve called the Great Stolen Motorcycle Recovery Swindle.
It started when some kids were spotted riding into a maze of streets on an obviously nicked motorbike, who were later seen walking away from the area.
That meant the bike was still around so Dom Wójcik and Martin Bailey, the Facebook group’s founders, went looking for it. They found it hidden in some bushes and took a bit of a risk by moving it to a safe location. They could have been charged with handling stolen property or theft of a vehicle but they wanted to prevent any damage to the bike and return it to its owner, so they went ahead anyway.
After finding a surname and postcode in the top box it took a week of knocking on doors and asking around before they found the owner, a resident in an old people’s home. He was ill in bed and didn’t know his bike had been stolen. Although he wasn’t too steady on his feet he used to go out riding on his bike whenever he could. The guys were glad to reunite bike and owner because it obviously meant a lot to him but they thought because of his frailty that was the end of the story. A few weeks later though, Dom saw the guy out on the road on his bike and got the feeling they’d done something really worthwhile. They’d given him back his freedom.
After that success, the group started recovering more stolen bikes. The Facebook group’s membership reported thefts, dumped bikes and suspicious activity. The boys would go and get the bikes and return them to the owners. For free.
There’s been a growing sense of unrest in Bristol
Stolen bikes are different to stolen cars. If fingerprints are found inside a car it’s a convincing argument that someone was inside the vehicle without the owner’s consent. If dabs are found on a bike it doesn’t prove the theft, only that someone touched the bike, maybe while it was parked in the street. Consequently, there are few arrests let alone convictions for bike theft. Fighting bike crime can seem like a thankless task.
Avon and Somerset Police are running Operation Buell, an ongoing investigation into motorbike thefts in the Bristol area. In January this year a public meeting took place with 150 members of the public (many of which ride bikes) meeting councillors and police officials to discuss the issue.
The police came in for criticism following their apparent lack of action. Many of the local thieves who had been regularly riding round dangerously at night keeping people awake were already well known to both the police and local people, yet nothing appeared to have been done, and there was a total lack of communication between the force and the public.
Thanks to a motivated crowd and the open mind of Inspector Rob Cheeseman this meeting ended better than it started with the acceptance of ‘Ideas for a public volunteer group to help local police tackle crime.’ This was the beginning of cooperation between the police and Stolen Motorcycle Recovery Bristol, who had at that point already reunited six people with their stolen bikes.
Since then SMRB has been operating with police blessing, some might say doing their work for them. Now each bike that’s found by the group is called in to 101 to be logged and confirmed as actually stolen, SMRB are even on first name terms with the call handlers. The police are kept informed, then each bike is stored in a safe place until the owner can be traced.
At the time I spoke to the guys the group had recovered an amazing 53 bikes in their eight months’ of operation. A rough calculation shows that over nine grand’s worth of charges have been denied to official recovery companies and saved for hardworking bike owners.
This is over a grand a month! Those figures tell us there are a lot of bikes getting nicked in what is really only a small city. And these are just the ones that SMRB have found. The official recovery companies are still collecting bikes as well.
SMRB only collect a bike if they get to hear about it first. Currently, the police must offer an owner the option of collecting their bike themselves (if rideable) or having an official recovery company pick it up, with the fees that would entail. There are talks ongoing to allow Avon and Somerset Constabulary to offer a victim the third option of having SMRB collect their bike. There’s a lot of red tape involved to get this in place, but if you were in that situation what would you choose?
The SMRB guys are very keen to point out that they’re not vigilantes. They aren’t chasing anyone they’re just picking up bikes.
They have had contact with some of the thieves both online and while out collecting bikes. Like monkeys flinging poo, those little twats like to hurl abuse but these are young striplings, not hardened crims.
Still, the team takes the situation seriously. The SMRB guys have acquired stab vests, bodycams and walkie-talkies making them look like bearded security blokes. They’ve received offers of help from the followers of the Facebook group, both in the form of donations and equipment, and their van now has flashing safety lights. The lights and uniforms work as a bit of a deterrent when the lads turn up to recover a bike. Whatever little scrotes are still in the area turn tail and run at the first sign of anything resembling authority. There’s never been any violence and no matter how tempting some people might find it, getting charged with assaulting a minor would outweigh any charge to a minor for bike theft. It would be absolutely counterproductive.
There are currently seven members of the SMRB crew, who all work and spend their own time recovering stolen bikes. The group is supported entirely by donations raised online and at bike events. There’s no public money involved.
I wondered about the SMRB group’s future and funding, whether they might expand or turn into a recovery business. The answer was that it’s early days. There’s been talk of them becoming a charity or police volunteers. But as long as there are bikes that need recovering they want to continue doing what they’re doing.
When I asked if there were particular bikes apart from scooters and 125s that were targeted for theft the answer was instant and unanimous: SPEED TRIPLES! Apparently, they’re easy targets. The ignition barrel is easy to get to, the wiring is readily accessible and older ones don’t have immobilizers. They’re also quick and fun to ride and go for a good price if they’re being sold on or broken for parts.
Most of the thieving little pricks don’t know much about bikes, they’ve learned just enough to hotwire an old bike. Many of the bikes SMRB have picked up have had all sorts of wires cut, seemingly at random.
I asked the best way to avoid getting my bike nicked
The answers were mostly obvious. Keep your bike out of sight, locked up with big fucking locks and chains. Use alarms and trackers. Adding a second DIY killswitch hidden from view is a cheap way of stopping anyone hotwiring a bike.
Data tagging wasn’t seen as being too useful. It doesn’t stop a bike getting nicked, thrashed and burned and if a bike somehow ends up in eastern Europe as some people suspect, it’s not going to be inspected by anyone who’s interested in its history.
Martin also wasn’t convinced by CCTV systems. You might get a souvenir video of someone nicking your bike but if they can’t be 100% identified in court then it’s not going to do any good. Cheap fake cameras provide just as much deterrent without the cost.
I asked what could be done to reduce bike theft
It’s not rocket surgery. Security designed into bikes right from the ground up; increased police funding and presence. There was a lot of criticism of the CPS who appear to be working against the police at every step.
It’s easy to see why manufacturers haven’t bothered designing in security. Customer buys a bike, bike gets nicked, customer buys another bike. Profit! Dom told me about some people who had had two or three bikes stolen and had given up riding bikes because of it. That must hurt bike sales in the long run.
Like me, the guys had seen the spec of the TMAX DX, with all its electronic tracking and anti-theft features, and welcomed it as a big step forward. But also like me, were immediately suspicious about where all the data that it generates would go and who would have access to it.
If a bike reports everything its owner does and everywhere they go then it will be a deterrent for some buyers. But one that focusses on making theft really difficult would attract lower insurance rates and might tempt back people disillusioned by thefts. That’s got to be good news for manufacturers. I hope the TMAX is just the first model to have more security features and that manufacturers will roll them out to all new models.
I asked about the thieves themselves.
Martin told me they’re seldom if ever in school, mostly come from families where there’s a history of drug use, crime, and a complete lack of positive influences. I wondered if any of them could ever turn their lives around, maybe if there was some community program to try and engage their positive side. Martin thought it might be possible for some of the younger ones but, generally, they were already set on their paths. Really they should be pitied. Their lives are only going downhill from where they are.
Some of the SMRB guys are typical long-haired bearded bikers and were originally at the forefront of criticising the police. But since working and communicating closely with them they’ve changed their opinion. They told me the police are working hard all the time behind the scenes, and that there’s a huge amount of work involved in bringing prosecutions to court.
We the public just don’t see that. They have their hands tied by the CPS and face a lack of funding and manpower, sorry, personpower. Investigations do go on but take a very long time because they need to get evidence and identity beyond doubt to put before the courts.
On the streets, faced with a choice between attending an accident or assault or standing guard over an abandoned moped the police will naturally deal with the highest priority first. This is one reason the recovery companies are used so much. Once a bike is located the police want to call it in and get it collected as soon as possible so they can get on with other things. Dom told me about his conversations with Inspector Rob Cheeseman who, he says, works endlessly to improve the bike theft and other situations.
I honestly don’t think I’ve ever spoken to anyone who’s praised up the police so much. Avon and Somerset Police should hire these guys as their PR company. Maybe if the police were communicating better with the community they’d take less flak.
Dom told me that a lot of the comments on the Facebook page are supportive and enthusiastic. People all around the country have said they want to do something similar in their own areas. The guys have offered their support and what they’ve learned so far to help make the learning curve a little less steep for other groups that are trying to form.
Now the lads have been in the papers and on Crimewatch people know who they are. They’ve been recognised in the street and have been overwhelmed by the positive buzz they’re getting from people.
Whenever people in this country come across a shitty situation, we’re very quick to moan that ‘someone should do something about this!’
A perfect storm of factors has created this particularly shitty situation
Kids with nothing to do and no positive influences, gee’d up by social media and their own stupid gangsta culture; Lack of policing and funding for the police, little or no chance of thieves getting caught; CPS seemingly preventing prosecutions and zero consequences to the few that do get caught; Insurance companies that do everything possible to avoid paying out on claims and make it too expensive or in some cases impossible to get adequate insurance cover. And manufacturers who design bikes that are easy to steal.
All of this adds up to a serious and growing social problem.
SMRB have got off their arses and started doing something positive about it. They’ve brought a community together, made a massive difference to a lot of people’s lives and provided inspiration to groups around the country. They deserve massive credit for what they’ve done so far and support for what they want to do in the future. So hop over and give them a LIKE or better still, a donation!
You can read about the fees SMRB help owners avoid in the Great Stolen Motorcycle Recovery Swindle.
Get yourself sorted:
Follow and support Stolen Motorcycle Recovery Bristol at https://www.facebook.com/groups/2182108332016840/
If you live in the Bristol area you can also follow Bristol Bike Theft Awareness. The Facebook group reports sightings of criminal activity and makes it easier to share news of a stolen vehicle so other bikers can keep a lookout.