Officers at the Central Tel Aviv police station on Dizengoff Street have recently been having difficulty finding a parking place for the police van in the station complex. Hundreds of bicycles that were stolen from their owners and seized by the police are stored there, and every day additional bikes join them.
The police didn't like the new arrangement, and decided in the past two weeks to take action: They began to contact the hundreds of Tel Aviv residents who filed a complaint about a bicycle theft, and invited them to a two-wheel line-up at the station. "From the beginning of 2008 we received only 500 complaints about stolen bicycles at the station, but we estimate that far more were stolen. People simply give up in advance and don't come to complain," says Superintendent Boaz Balat, of the Central Tel Aviv station. "Since we began the campaign 80 people have come to identify their bikes, 20 of them managed to find the bike that they described in the original complaint and got it back," says Balat. "There's a feeling among the public that the theft of a bicycle doesn't interest us, but that's far from the truth. We handle every offense, whether minor or major, and the main idea behind this campaign is to return the stolen property to its owner."
The police can easily identify bicycle thieves. The absolute majority of them, say the police, are street people and drug addicts who go from one courtyard to the next, usually on regular routes, and with a simple box cutter they break the bicycle lock and within seconds disappear, mounted on the bicycles. In certain cases, when the cutter doesn't do the job, a mechanical disc is also a familiar solution.
Tomer, 30, a high-tech worker, didn't believe that it was happening to him again. A week after a bicycle he bought for a few hundred shekels was stolen, thieves struck again and stole the new bicycle he had purchased, this time for NIS 1,500. "The truth is that I didn't think of complaining to the police. After all, nobody thinks that they can do anything about this, but after the second bike I got angry," says Tomer.
To his surprise, at the beginning of this week he got an unexpected phone call from the Tel Aviv police asking him to come to the station and to try to find the bike that was stolen from him. His case was successful: Thursday morning Tomer left the station with the two stolen bicycles; he found it difficult to balance them, but even more difficult to conceal his smile. "It's really unbelievable, during the second robbery they even took the locks that cost me NIS 400, and I can't help thinking about some shady deal that's going on here," said Tomer, hinting at the bicycle shops in the city, which profit most from the plague of thefts.
Guni Paz, 21, a resident of the "old north" of Tel Aviv, wasn't lucky like Tomer. She had a bike stolen about four years ago, and again about two months ago. "In one week they stole my bicycle from the train station and my father's bike from our building's parking lot. Although I was very disgusted I decided to buy a new bike, and since then it has been locked in the shelter so that nobody can get in. I no longer leave it on the street at night, and I have a neighbor who carries her bike up three flights."
Her mother's bike was also stolen recently, after she locked it in the street. Now they share one bicycle.
Hagit Sasportas and her partner Kobi have had five bicycles stolen from them in the past four years. "The last theft was five months ago," she said. "Kobi still hasn't recovered and didn't buy a new bike."
She says that the cumulative damage reaches thousands of shekels. "I bring my bike into the house. How dumb can I be?"
Guni, Hagit and Kobi will soon visit the bicycle line-up at the police station.
"We don't know about the specific sale of stolen bicycles in a centralized way or to certain shops," claims Superintendent Balat. "Most of the bikes are stolen and sold immediately after the theft for a few dozen shekels that the thief will use later to buy a dose of drugs, drink or food in order to get through the day."
Balat says that many of the suspects end up in detention until the completion of legal procedures and the filing of an indictment against the thieves. However, anyone who happens to visit the detention center in the Tel Aviv courthouse will discover that almost nobody spends more than a day in detention.
Balat may be right, but bike riders frequent the Jaffa flea market or a specific shop in the south of the city, located not far from the district headquarters of the Tel Aviv police, in order to find their bicycles among the second-hand ones being offered for sale.
Whatever the case, Tel Avivians, in spite of the thefts, have wholeheartedly adopted the bicycle in recent years, especially in the city center. According to the Tel Aviv municipality, "the use of bicycles increased from 2 percent in 2002 to over 7 percent this year. In the city center the use of bicycles has increased to 15 percent, and the bike has become the leading alternative vehicle." The municipality also reported that during the past seven years it has paved 82 kilometers of bicycle paths throughout the city, for a sum of NIS 54 million.
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