The Bike Thieves of Burlington, Vermont

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Burlington, Vt., is a bike-friendly city. There are multiple bike stores, a network of bright green bike lanes on many major streets and a waterfront bike path with views of the dazzling sunsets over Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains.

Burlington’s bike culture and natural beauty convinced Julie Williams to settle there after graduating from the University of Vermont 10 years ago. She also liked the city’s progressive politics, which started the career of Bernie Sanders, a former Burlington mayor. “I feel like I fit in here,” said Ms. Williams, who operates Betty’s Bikes, which she named after her grandmother.

But this spring, she noticed a troubling trend: A large number of people were calling the store asking whether Ms. Williams had seen their missing bicycles. “I was getting five or six calls a day,” she said.

Bike theft has long been a problem in Burlington, a city of about 45,000 residents, but it seemed to intensify over the summer and into the fall. Bikes were disappearing from front porches, garages and bike racks. Mountain bikes, carbon-fiber race bikes, children’s bikes — all gone. The university warned students returning to campus that about 220 bikes, valued at $267,000, had been stolen in and around the city since June.

Frustrated by the thefts, Ms. Williams became part of a Facebook group, through which people could post photos of their stolen bikes in hopes that others might see them around town and return them.

The group, “BTV Stolen Bike Report and Recovery,” soon attracted more than 2,000 members — equal to about 4 percent of the city’s population. Many shared similar-sounding stories of loss.

A tourist who camped by the lake only to have his expensive mountain bike vanish.

A college student whose bike rack on his car had been sawed off with a metal grinder.

“Back to school is off to a great start, except my daughter’s bike went missing,” one local mom wrote on the group’s page.

Feeling that the local police were too busy to fully investigate many of the thefts, members of the Facebook group started going on patrols around the city looking for the stolen property. Often, the bikes were easy to find. They had been tossed in the wooded area along the bike path or ditched in a downtown park. Or they were being ridden casually by people who did not own them.

But, as summer wore on, the recovery effort became more than just an exercise in good citizenship. Like small businesses dealing with belligerent customers, or retailers locking up detergent, makeup and other items popular with shoplifters, the bike recovery group has found itself on the front lines of a debate about crime and policing that is confounding many American cities.

In the effort to try to solve the crime of bike theft themselves, the group’s members have come close to a world of violence and despair that lurks barely below the surface of this beautiful place and, at times, bursts into the open. In some years, Burlington has gone without a single gunfire incident, according to the police. But in 2022 there have been 25 such incidents, including four murders — the most in at least 30 years, the police say.

“It has been traumatizing,” said Ms. Williams, “to watch the city kind of fall apart before your eyes.”

Downtown Burlington is a vibrant cluster of bars humming with live music, cafes hissing with sounds of steamed-milk machines and a Patagonia store with a “Black Lives Matter” sign in the window.

At the heart of the scene is City Hall Park, which two years ago was outfitted with new benches, ornamental grasses and a fountain illuminated with pastel-colored lights.

The park is dedicated to the people of Burlington who have died from Covid-19. It reflects the city’s generous investments in civic spaces and the earnestness of its politics.

“In the years to come,” a plaque in the park reads, “as children play in jets of water and crowds assemble to enjoy each other and our city’s great music, food, and events, let us never forget that these joyous scenes are fragile.”

Such joy, the plaque goes on to say, “can only be guaranteed through an ongoing, vigilant commitment to public health and science.”

Burlington has long been a haven for hippies and liberal ideals. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream got started there. So did Mr. Sanders, who was the city’s socialist mayor in the 1980s.

In recent years, a new generation of leaders emerged. Many younger candidates have run for the City Council as members of the Progressive party — and won seats.

Jane Knodell was first elected to the Council as a Progressive in 1993. In 2019, she was defeated by a much younger candidate.

“I owned my home, and I worked at UVM,”Ms. Knodell, an economics professor, said, referring to the university. “The younger Progressive voters thought I couldn’t understand their lives.”

The Progressives on the Council tend to be left leaning on many issues and often at odds with the city’s Democratic mayor. And in June 2020, the Progressive members of the Council successfully sponsored a measure that sought to reduce the size of the city’s police force by about 30 percent. The move, which the mayor opposed, came just weeks after the murder of George Floyd, and amid concerns about how the Burlington police had used force against Black people.

The city’s population remains about 85 percent white — in a state that is among the whitest in the nation. But Burlington is a college town, drawing people from around the country. It’s also a refugee resettlement hub, where people from war-torn countries in Asia and Africa come to live.

The measure capped the number of officers at 74, down from a maximum of about 100. Most of the reduction was expected to happen over time through attrition.

Zoraya Hightower, a Progressive member of the Council, who supported the police measure, said the police department felt unfairly targeted during the national protests over Mr. Floyd’s murder. “There was a feeling that you can’t blame us for the worst of what is going on in America,’’ she said. But there were also issues of “accountability” in the Burlington department, she said, that need to be addressed.

Some supporters of the measure said they hoped the city would use the moment to fund more social workers and expand services for addiction and mental illness.

Tammy Boudah, a street outreach worker in Burlington, said she supported the broad examination of race and class by the city government. But the notion of replacing the police with more social workers, she said, “is predicated on the idea that everyone just wants to get along.”

“And 85 percent of the time that is probably true,” she said, “but there is the other 15 percent that has to be dealt with.”

One morning in June, Ms. Williams awoke to find that one of her bikes had been stolen from outside her downtown condominium.

She jumped in her van and started searching for the culprit. She didn’t have to look far. A man, wearing athletic shorts and sandals with socks, was wheeling her bike near City Hall Park.

“That’s my bike,” Ms. Williams said out of the window as she drove by the man. He ignored her, hopped on the bike and pedaled calmly down a pedestrian-only street that was off limits to Ms. Williams’s van.

It was happening to her friends’ bikes, too. Michael Waters, 36, an artist and carpenter, had two bikes stolen from the backyard of his house.

“They stole two meaningful bikes,” he said. “I was really upset.”

Some of the friends decided to try an experiment. They installed a GPS tracking device on a bike and left it locked in a downtown rack. A few days later, their “bait bike” was gone.

The group tracked its overnight journey across Burlington on an app. It was a “wild ride,” Ms. Williams said. The bike traveled along a busy thoroughfare leading out of the city, through empty parking lots, into the woods and then back downtown, where it finally came to rest in City Hall Park.

“The bike didn’t sleep at all,” Ms. Williams said.

In the morning, she called the police, eager to share her GPS data and ideas about the thefts. According to Ms. Williams, an officer was willing to retrieve the bike from the park, but that was the extent of it.

As Ms. Williams tagged along, the officer walked up to a group of people standing next to the bike and asked whether it belonged to anyone.

“Nope,” one of the people said.

“Perfect,” Ms. Williams remembered the officer saying.

Ms. Williams got the bike back, but the officer said staffing cuts in the department made it difficult to pursue minor crimes like bike theft.

Ms. Williams said the officer “didn’t have time for any of it.”

Jon Murad, the acting chief of the Burlington Police Department, has an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a master’s from the university’s Kennedy School.

He spoke at Harvard’s commencement in 2013, saying, “Success doesn’t mean rising to the top. It means changing the world.”

After graduation, Chief Murad went to work as a New York City police officer and as a technical consultant to “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” the hit television comedy about a precinct of zany cops who often try to do the right thing.

These days, one measure of success for Chief Murad involves finding police officers who want to work in Burlington.

Soon after the City Council passed its policing measure in June 2020, many officers left the force. Some went to work in other police departments. One now works in health care. Another is selling rabbits.

Chief Murad, a Vermont native, said that, in their exit interviews, the departing officers told him that they did not feel “valued” by the community after the vote to reduce the department’s size.

There are now 61 officers on the force, but only 53 are actively deployed because of issues like injuries and military service. It is far below the cap of 74 that the council originally set.

Representatives for the police union said that in order to improve morale on the force the City Council needs to restore staffing back to the levels of June 2020. The union also believes that staffing constraints are leading to more serious crimes.

“Street level crime, like bike thefts, they are not being dealt with before it escalates into something bigger,’’ said Joseph Corrow, a patrol officer and president of the local police union.

Mr. Murad said that during certain times of the day there may be only two armed officers patrolling all of downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods.

As he spoke, Mr. Murad sat in his office at police headquarters, which was dark and mostly empty. A white board on the wall listed the principles of 21st century policing that were developed by the Obama Administration. He said the city’s officers were early to wear body cameras and they have limited “pretext” traffic stops in an effort to reduce racial disparities in arrests.

“We believe in reform and we have reformed ourselves in many ways,” Mr. Murad said.

He said he has been concerned about the bike thefts but is perplexed about what could be fueling them. “Is it for money, for conveyance, lark?” Mr. Murad said. “I don’t know.”

The police say making arrests for bike thefts could be challenging. They cite a memo from the local prosecutor which stipulates that, according to Vermont law, in order to effectively prosecute someone the police must prove the person “actually knew” the property was stolen.

But Sarah George, the state’s attorney in Chittenden County, which includes Burlington, said some police officers were using the memo as “an excuse not to do basic investigating.”

Ms. George, a Democrat who had the backing of the Progressive Party in her successful re-election bid this year, said the police staffing issues were being overstated as a reason for the increase in crime.

She pointed out that many other cities, including some in Vermont, were seeing increases in violent crimes, yet their police forces were not as understaffed.

“What’s happening right now are consequences of a global pandemic that has dramatically impacted our most vulnerable people,” she said.

Ms. Hightower, the Progressive Council member, also won re-election since the 2020 police measure. She said she doesn’t feel less safe in the city, though she acknowledged that there is a perception that Burlington has changed.

“We have an increase in houseless folks around Burlington,” Ms. Hightower said. “It is not something people are comfortable seeing and it sparks an emotional response.”

Still, the Burlington Police say many kinds of crimes have increased in 2022. Larceny of all types is up 107 percent this year in Burlington compared with the five-year average from 2017 to 2021, and downtown businesses have begun to react.

City Hardware, across from City Hall Park, now requires customers to check their bags at the front of the store.

Mike Rosen, a 79-year-old grandfather and engineering researcher who teaches at the university, took a part-time job at the store during the pandemic, mostly because the shop had good air conditioning.

“I am an academic brat that typically lives on the hill,” Mr. Rosen said. But his experience working in the store has been eye-opening.

“No one should run for public office unless they do one year of retail sales work,” he said. “That is how they really could get to know the population.”

This summer, someone smashed the store’s front window with a paving stone. It happened at some point during the early morning hours, when the police limit active patrols of downtown because of staffing issues.

When Mr. Rosen’s daughter, who lives in Massachusetts, heard about the rising crime around the store, she told him, “Dad, you have to quit. You have to get out of there.”

Over the summer, the bike recovery group expanded into an eclectic lot — including, for instance, a photographer, two employees from the food co-op and an artist

“I know this may sound radical, but we all agree that theft is not OK,” said Bryce Turner, 27, a group member who manages a local bar.

They became experts at finding stolen bikes, sometimes locating and returning them to their owners in a matter of hours. The weekly Burlington newspaper, Seven Days, wrote a profile about them.

On a blustery night this fall, the group’s members rode through town on patrol.

Heading away from the cozy, red brick concourse of Church Street, the group pedaled into dense neighborhoods of rental houses, home to students and resettled refugees.

They pointed at rundown houses, where they often found missing bikes on dimly lit porches and in even darker backyards overgrown with weeds.

They looked like a posse from an old western. Red safety lights blinked on their helmets.

Mr. Turner has a trim mustache and hints of an accent from his native Massachusetts. Some in the group joke that he resembles a police officer.

“People are trying to connect our work to a pro-cop or anti-cop agenda,” Mr. Turner said. “Most of us just want to get people’s bikes back.”

Mr. Turner has personally recovered more than a dozen bikes — many of them from City Hall Park.

The newly renovated park reopened to the public in October 2020, but it has become a widely cited symbol of the city’s troubles.

Mr. Turner and the others in the group say they believe the bikes that end up in the park are being sold in exchange for drugs.

“It’s an open-air drug and bike market,” he said of the park.

They believe that the theft is part of a broad black-market operation, and point to a pickup truck that has been photographed around town, hauling a stack of bikes in the back, under a tarp.

The police say that they have seen online reports of the pickup but that they have no probable cause to pull the vehicle over.

Still, the bike group perceives a growing sense of lawlessness in the park. One day in August, Mr. Turner was walking past a group of people in the park when someone punched him in the back of the head.

Seeing no police officers around, he found a firefighter nearby and told him about the assault.

“He called it in to the police, but he basically said nothing is going to come of this,” Mr. Turner said. “The cops have their hands full.”

Burlington’s mayor, Miro Weinberger, a Democrat, has a plan to rebuild the police department, but it has been difficult to carry out.

Last year, the City Council voted to restore maximum staffing levels to 87 officers, up from the cap of 74 set in June 2020. Several recruits have joined the police academy, but it will take many months for them to complete that process.

“It’s a lot easier to break something than it is to put it back together,” Mr. Weinberger said during an interview.

Mr. Weinberger readily admits, however, that the police cuts do not explain everything that’s going wrong in Burlington, particularly the increase in violence.

Over the course of two weeks in September, a man in a wheelchair was hit in the face and robbed while withdrawing money from an A.T.M., another man suffered multiple skull fractures and nearly lost an eye after being beaten outside a Walgreens and a third man, a college student, was robbed at gunpoint and forced to strip naked.

“We are not used to this level of violence in Vermont,” Mr. Weinberger said at a news conference announcing a double murder in early October.

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Mr. Weinberger himself has had the windshield of his Tesla smashed and his house burglarized.

So far, he said, the crime has not affected Burlington’s economy, which is “quite strong.” Unemployment is low, hotels are full and retail sales have been flush.

But, he added, “it does feel like a threat to that continuing, if we can’t get these trends under control.”

A former affordable housing developer, Mr. Weinberger said one of his proudest accomplishments had been using data to help identify and get treatment to people who were struggling with opioid addiction.

The mayor has regular meetings with outreach workers, the police and hospital staff members to keep track of individual cases. As part of that process, he said, wait times for medical-assisted treatment for opioid addiction were curtailed and overdoses dropped.

But, during the pandemic, many of the people living on the city’s streets changed, and so did the drugs being used.

“It’s something we are figuring out,” Mr. Weinberger said.

Late this summer, while retrieving a stolen bike from a house that the recovery group frequents, Mr. Turner accidentally kicked a small plastic bag on the sidewalk containing a white, crystal-like powder.

Curious, Mr. Turner brought the bag home and started searching online. His suspicions were confirmed: The white powder appeared to be methamphetamine.

Meth has had devastating effects on parts of the western United States and Appalachia, but it showed up relatively recently in Vermont.

Ken Davis, 58, who is homeless and sleeps in City Hall Park, said he head recently tried meth and “it makes you crazy.”

Others have also noticed a change. Hannah Toof, an outreach worker, said many of her clients had become increasingly volatile, behavior she attributed partly to meth.

“I no longer feel safe going into City Hall Park at any time of the day,” said Ms. Toof, who has worked in street outreach for seven years.

Those concerns are exacerbated because the outreach workers say they can no longer depend on the police to accompany them on certain calls because of staffing constraints.

The outreach workers’ headquarters, the Howard Center, which dates to the Civil War, recently started locking its doors and buzzing in clients because of safety concerns. This fall, the outreach workers ordered “stab-resistant vests” for protection, and about 20 percent of the Howard Center’s positions are vacant. It has struggled to fill them.

In some cases, people who take meth have underlying mental health challenges. Others use meth in combination with the highly addictive fentanyl.

“Meth is a game changer,” said Ms. Boudah, the leader of the outreach team.

Some Meth users are known to become fixated on stealing things — such as bikes.

Michael Hutchins, who moved to Florida last October to get away from the drug scene in Burlington, said some meth users he knew in Burlington stole bikes for transportation. “To get from Point A to Point B,” he said.

Others stole for the sheer thrill of taking something. Up for days without sleeping, some rode the bikes around with no real purpose. Mr. Davis said he had watched one bike change hands six times in the park.

Last year, when the police dismantled a large encampment in an empty lot, they found the “severed limbs of hundreds of bikes” strewn about, Chief Murad said.

“Bikes were a quick easy grab that fulfilled the need to take something for an adrenaline rush” Mr. Hutchins, 40, said in a phone interview from Florida.

Stealing and hoarding were common among the people Mr. Hutchins knew in Burlington struggling with addiction.

“It would fill the emptiness,” he said.

One of the things that Torie Huddleston likes about Burlington are its birds — the bald eagles, hawks, falcons and snowy owls that soar above the college greens and the lake.

Ms. Huddleston, 47, moved to Burlington in 2002. As someone who underwent residential treatment for alcoholism and Post-traumatic stress disorder when she was in her 20s, Burlington has been a supportive and healing place, she said.

She likes to volunteer to sit with children in the hospital who are too sick to play. And she finds strength in watching the city’s wildlife — and from its people, like the friends she made as a member of the bike recovery group.

“The past few years here have been very dark and negative, and this is a way I could help people,” she said of the group.

She worries that the sanctuary that Burlington has provided her is being undermined by the crime and the acrimony in the city’s politics, which has drawn hard lines across the community.

But, to her, the reality is more complicated.

One evening over Labor Day weekend, she watched the meth users mingling in the twilight in City Hall Park.

She noticed a young man riding a nice-looking Cannondale that one of the meth users had given him. Unlike the others in that group, the man seemed relaxed, weaving the bike around the fountain and standing on the pedals like a kid.

“There was this light to him,” she said. “He was connected to the meth addicts, but he was happy and smiling, and he was making me happy.

“He just looked like he was having fun on a bike,” she added.

A few hours later, in that same corner of the park, a man was sitting with his girlfriend on a wall when he was shot in the back of the head from six inches away. He died a short time later.

Both the victim and the person suspected of killing him were from out of state and believed to be involved in drug dealing, according to the police.

It was Burlington’s third homicide of the year.

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