Looking for the Bicycle Thief

It’s been over a month since someone had the audacity to steal two Chicago Police Department bikes, but the perpetrator hasn’t been caught. Bike messengers think the police believe a messenger did it–and they think that’s why police are cracking down on messengers.

“It’s unreal–the cops are stopping us for the smallest, most trivial things, some of which aren’t even illegal,” says Mike Morell, chairperson of the Windy City Bicycle Messenger Association. “It’s like they’re looking for stuff to nail us on.”

The messengers say the crackdown began shortly after the two bikes, which belonged to members of the department’s special operations bike patrol, were stolen on August 2. According to a Sun-Times account, the “Trek Fuel 80 models, each worth $1,200, were locked at 140 E. Pearson while the officers were having lunch.” When the officers returned, “they discovered the locks cut and the bikes gone.”

No one had ever stolen a police bike before. “We’re working on this now,” Sergeant Joe Andruzzi, who heads the bicycle unit, told the Sun-Times. “We are definitely following through on some information we have.” The paper concluded, “Andruzzi said officers were spreading word among bicycle messengers because they might spot the [bikes] on the street.”

Yet the messengers say police have been doing much more than spreading the word. “They’re kicking our asses,” is how one puts it.

According to the messengers, bike patrol officers have been stopping them and citing them for violating the city code. Morell says he’s been stopped twice in the past few weeks. “The first time was August 7 at about 5:20 in the evening,” he says. “I’d just finished work, and I was coming back to the base. I was at the corner of LaSalle and Randolph, waiting for a red light. A cop rode up next to me and asked how I was doing. I said, ‘Fine.’ I started to ride off, and he said, ‘No, come on back.'”

At that point, Morell says, two other officers pulled up on their bikes. “One of the cops starts searching through my bag to see if I have any deliveries,” he says. The municipal code says that “every licensee [bike messenger company] shall supply each bicycle operator” with a helmet. It doesn’t, however, require the messengers to wear the helmets. “Technically the cops can’t cite me for not wearing the helmet so long as I have a helmet with me–which I do,” says Morell. “The law doesn’t say anything about regular bike riders–they don’t even have to wear a helmet. So I guess the cop was looking through my bags to see if I was still on the job.”

Morell says he asked the officer to stop searching his bag. “The cop said, ‘You’re going to jail.’ I said, ‘Why am I going to jail?’ He said, ‘You don’t have reflectors on your bike.’ I said, ‘But that’s ridiculous–it’s the afternoon. I don’t need reflectors.’ He said, ‘Well, then no brakes.'”

Morell says he rides a track bike, which doesn’t have conventional handlebar brakes. “A lot of messengers have them–to stop, you simply stop pedaling,” he says. “They’re not dangerous if you know how to use them. And I know how to use them–I’ve had a track bike for over a year. Obviously I stop it all the time.”

But the officer wrote him a ticket for riding a bike without brakes anyway. “They started with the reflectors and settled on the brakes–they were looking for something to hit me with,” says Morell. “I was trying to explain to him how a track bike works. He said, ‘I don’t care. I don’t even care if the ticket stands at all. Take it up with the ticket hearing officer.'”

It never occurred to Morell that the ticket might be connected to the police-bike thefts. But the next day he had a second run-in with police. “I was cruising full speed down Chicago Avenue near Larrabee when somebody jumps out at me from a car. He had a walkie-talkie in his hand, and he was telling me to stop. I had no idea who he was. He wasn’t wearing a uniform. He said, ‘Stop, before I throw this’–meaning the walkie-talkie–‘through your spokes.'”

Morell realized the guy was a plainclothes officer in an unmarked squad car. “He and his partner had actually set up a roadblock to stop bike messengers. He started asking me for the usual information–my ID, my social security number, whatever. He radios the information to someone else. Then he started asking me about the stolen police bikes. He asked, ‘Have you heard of any police bikes being stolen?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I heard about them.’ He tells me they think messengers were involved. I asked why, but all he said was, ‘We have our reasons.’ They let me go without giving me a ticket.”

Then Morell heard that other messengers were being stopped. “All the messengers were talking about it,” he says. “Everyone was getting stopped.”

Randy McDonough, also a messenger, says two officers told him they thought the bike thief was a messenger. “I was standing out by the Thompson Building downtown with some other messengers when two cops came up,” he says. “They showed me a mug shot of the guy who they say stole their bikes. They told me his name and his alias, and they asked if I knew him or had seen him around. I’ve never seen the guy. His name doesn’t even sound familiar. They told me that they’re going on a witness’s statement–that some witness saw that the thief had a messenger’s bag.”

Most messengers think the police are following a bum lead. “No messenger stole those bikes,” says one. “First of all, it happened on a Saturday, when hardly any messengers work. Second of all, no messenger would be so stupid as to jeopardize his career by stealing a cop’s bike. This is right out of Dragnet, man, with the cops doing this heavy stuff. You know what I think? I think those cops just left their bikes unlocked, and they were embarrassed to come back and find that someone stole them. I think they made up the thing about them being locked. Trust me, man, I hardly ever see cops lock their bikes. Go through the Loop and look for yourself. They usually leave them unlocked. Or if they do lock them, they lock them with their handcuffs.”

Police spokesman Wayne Frisbie says the bikes haven’t been recovered, and the case hasn’t been solved. He won’t comment on whether the department’s investigation centers on bike messengers. “Obviously, if there are leads,” he says, “to give those out now would not be a good idea in the pursuit of the offenders.”

The messengers say the crackdown is still going on. “I’d say that about 70 messengers have been written up since the bikes were stolen,” says Morell. “A lot of others have been stopped and let go. It’s a drag even if they don’t write us up, because it slows us down and keeps us from making deliveries. If we do get written up, that means even more time away from the job when we go to our hearings.”

The messengers plan to stage a protest at noon on September 8 outside the city’s hearing office at 400 W. Superior. “That’s the day when a lot of messengers have their hearings,” says Morell. “I don’t know where those stolen police bikes are. I really doubt a messenger had anything to do with it. I think the police should just give us a break already.”

Daley: On With the Show

Mayor Daley entered the gymnasium of the Falconer grade school by slipping silently along the wall, without press people or bodyguards. A couple hundred residents were seated in the gym, and at a long table at one end were 40 or so of Daley’s top deputies and aides.

The August 28 gathering at the school, at 3020 N. Lamon, was intended to elicit public comment on the $4.7 billion 2004 city budget, which was released in July. The City Council, which does pretty much whatever Daley wants, is expected to unanimously approve the budget in November, but three public-comment sessions on it were held in August–one each on the south, west, and north sides.

The department chiefs were there in case Daley had to ask them a question. Otherwise they were to sit in silence. “This is your turn,” Daley said as the residents lined up to speak.

If the ensuing comments were any indication, most of the attendees were happy with life in Daley’s city. “The city never smelled so sweet–all those flowers and trees,” purred one citizen. “Thank you, your honor. Thank you, Park District.” After similar preambles, most speakers eventually got around to their complaints–high taxes, overcrowded schools, not enough parks.

Daley’s been known to blow a fuse or two at sessions like this. But last Thursday he snapped only once, early on, when a man sitting near the front blurted out something along the lines of “Yeah, right–that’s what they all say.”

“I don’t shout at you,” said Daley, even though the man hadn’t shouted. “You have no right to shout at me.”

A little while later a petite older woman said, “You’re not going to bite me.”

“If you respect me, I respect you,” Daley said. “Some of these people think I’m a punching bag.”

Almost 100 people spoke over the course of three hours. Near the end a woman called for a property-tax freeze in exchange for a hike in the state income tax.

“We rely too much on the property tax,” Daley said, apparently agreeing with her. But he then suggested that such matters were beyond his control. “You have to get consensus from state reps and senators,” he said–as if state politicians don’t snap to attention when he wants something, as they did when he wanted state law changed so that Soldier Field could be remodeled.

The next person moved to another topic, and Daley managed to avoid taking any tough stands or making any promises, rambling along in his inimitable way so that people thought he was on their side even though they didn’t really know what he’d said.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.