Calgary police announced Thursday that a two-month operation this summer resulted in the recovery of 50 stolen bicycles and the arrests of 17 people, but some are questioning the efficacy – and legality – of the tactics officers employed.
Sgt. Katrina O’Reilly said police chatted up countless people riding or walking with bicycles in the downtown and Beltline areas as part of the blitz and, based on “the police officer’s discretion,” asked some of them to prove they owned the bikes.
“If they weren’t able to identify themselves as the owner quite quickly or quite immediately, we’d give them an opportunity to present ownership later and come pick up their bike,” O’Reilly said. “But we’d seize those bikes and essentially, if they didn’t show up to claim them later, we were able to keep them.”
Brian Seaman, a Calgary-based human rights and civil liberties lawyer, said that sounds like “a serious violation” of a “fundamental principle of the Canadian justice system.”
“That is, you are presumed innocent until proven guilty,” he said. “It’s highly unorthodox and very problematic for the police to be stopping somebody and then asking them to essentially prove ownership of property.”
Seaman said he doubts the charges would hold up in court, if challenged.
O’Reilly said police who work in the city’s core are familiar with area residents and used their best intelligence and discretion when deciding whom to seek proof of ownership from.
“We certainly weren’t stopping couriers or people commuting or things like that,” she said. “It was people who were walking around, pushing a bike, perhaps didn’t look like they were cyclists. So, as a result, we’d stop and chat with them. And, you know, nine times out of 10 people were rightful owners.”
Some bikes were returned a day or two after being seized, after the owners came to police with sufficient proof the bicycles belonged to them, she added. In other cases, police made arrests or kept bikes without filing charges.
Seaman said the tactics also raise concerns over potential racial, social, or other types of profiling, but added the Calgary Police Service does have “pretty good reputation” when it comes to positively interacting with the city’s homeless population.
O’Reilly said officers were definitely not targeting homeless people.
“The homeless that are down there, we’re familiar with them, and a lot of them do get around on bikes,” she said.
Section 489 of the Criminal Code allows a police officer to seize property if he or she “believes on reasonable grounds” it was obtained through crime.
As Metro first reported in August, Calgary witnessed a spike in reported bike thefts this year, with a total of 827 incidents between Jan. 1 and July 31, up from an average of 597 during the same period in 2008 to 2012.
After the arrest of a suspect and the recovery of one of two high-end bicycles stolen from his family this summer, Steven Coutts welcomed the police attention to bike theft but said there should be a focus higher up the criminal food chain.
“Anything they can do to combat bike theft is great in my books,” he said. “But I don’t think just picking on the guys on the street is going to end the problem.”
The 50 recovered bicycles range in value, with some worth as much as $5,000, according to police.
Still, police believe many more bicycle thefts go unreported. Officers have about 250 additional bicycles recovered from across the city that have not been claimed.
Police encourage anyone whose bike has gone missing to contact them with as many details as possible, to be cross-referenced with the unclaimed bikes.
You can contact police at 403-266-1234 or Crime Stoppers anonymously at 1-800-222-8477.