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Brussels bike thieves face €250 on the spot fines

Will the model work – and could it be adopted elsewhere, including the UK?

Bike thieves in the Belgian capital Brussels will now face on the spot fines of €250 if caught – which raises the question of whether, if it succeeds, that model could be adopted elsewhere, including the UK.

As with many other cities across the world, bike theft in Brussels has escalated in recent years – a problem exacerbated in the past year and a half or so by demand for bikes outstripping supply during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Brussels Times reports that police in the city will, from 1 January, be responding by issuing spot fines of €250 to offenders – in part because the authorities want to give the impression that “small” crimes do not go unpunished.

It quotes data from the office of Justice Minister Vincent Van Quickenborne which found that across the country, on average 230 bicycles are stolen each day – and that in the Brussels- Capital region, 4,474 bikes were reported stolen last year.

As elsewhere, the number of reported thefts underestimates the true scale of the problem – two in three in Belgium not being notified to police at all, says the Brussels Times, in part because victims have no faith in their bike being recovered, let alone the criminals being brought to justice.

So, on-the-spot fines are designed in part to provide a quick and efficient way for law enforcement officials to punish offenders, as well as deterring bike thefts from happening in the first place.

The best we can say, is good luck with that; it may deter opportunistic bike thieves, but the truth is that many of those we see coming before the courts in the UK either form part of organised gangs for whom stealing bikes is a major (and lucrative) source of income, or else are looking for a relatively easy way to make some quick money.

To expand on that, we’ve reported on a number of stories recently here on road.cc in which habitual bike thieves in the UK have been sentenced to prison – or, in some cases, escaped incarceration altogether.

In many of these cases, the offender is a drug user, and steals bikes to feed their addiction – at a guess, selling bikes on to a middleman for a fraction of their second-hand value simply to raise cash to feed their addiction.

Now, it’s true that the Brussels Times adds that according to Belgian authorities, organised gangs and repeat offenders – such as those we have outlined above – will be pursued through the courts.

The question has to be asked, though – how many bike thieves does that leave?

Simon joined road.cc as news editor in 2009 and is now the site’s community editor, acting as a link between the team producing the content and our readers. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, he has reported on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, the latest developments in the bike industry and the sport’s biggest races. Now back in London full-time after 15 years living in Oxford and Cambridge, he loves cycling along the Thames but misses having his former riding buddy, Elodie the miniature schnauzer, in the basket in front of him.

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17 comments

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mdavidford | 2 years ago
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"Sorry officer - I don't seem to have any cash on me at the moment. I can offer you payment in kind, though - this bike, for instance..."

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Captain Badger | 2 years ago
3 likes

At the risk of seeming woke, wooly, left, liberal etc. How does the state establish guilt of being a bike thief "on the spot"?

And will a fine, likely that the recipient can't pay, stop future thefts?

Cos that's what I want to see. Rather than fining/incarcerating/pilorying/transporting thieves, I want to see a society where folk are less likely to meander down that kind of life path in the first place, or if they do receive meaningful support to ensure they meander back the way they came to where we want them to be.

 

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Xenophon2 replied to Captain Badger | 2 years ago
2 likes

The underlying idea is is that the party that's caught pays up and in exchange the prosecution is dropped.  In practice, that's what already happens because except in very extreme circumstances, a person caught stealing a single bike will not be prosecuted to a point that the case goes to trial.  Usually the prosecutor proposes a fine and if paid, drops the case.  This proposal merely 'advances' the payment and reduces the work at the prosecutors' office, pushing it to the police.  If a person maintains innocence, he has the option of refusing and taking their chances -which are quite good. 

The problem is that -living in Brussels- there are 2 types of bike thieves here:  guys who work for organized gangs and only target expensive bikes and who will not be deterred but consider the 250 Euro as the cost of doing business.  The second category are the junks and the petty criminals.  This category usually have no money or no valid paperwork/official address.  A simple bike theft will result in detention during a couple of hours,but nothing exceeding 24h.  They'll simply never pay, sit out the 24 hours max.  They don't show up in court if a miracle happens and they actually are prosecuted.

I only see this harebrained scheme working with drunk students who try to nick a bike, get caught and start making lemonade in their trousers/calling mummy and daddy to pay up when confronted with the prospect of spending some time in the tank.

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Captain Badger replied to Xenophon2 | 2 years ago
1 like
Xenophon2 wrote:

The underlying idea is is that the party that's caught pays up and in exchange the prosecution is dropped.  In practice, that's what already happens because except in very extreme circumstances, a person caught stealing a single bike will not be prosecuted to a point that the case goes to trial.  Usually the prosecutor proposes a fine and if paid, drops the case.  This proposal merely 'advances' the payment and reduces the work at the prosecutors' office, pushing it to the police.  If a person maintains innocence, he has the option of refusing and taking their chances -which are quite good. 

The problem is that -living in Brussels- there are 2 types of bike thieves here:  guys who work for organized gangs and only target expensive bikes and who will not be deterred but consider the 250 Euro as the cost of doing business.  The second category are the junks and the petty criminals.  This category usually have no money or no valid paperwork/official address.  A simple bike theft will result in detention during a couple of hours,but nothing exceeding 24h.  They'll simply never pay, sit out the 24 hours max.  They don't show up in court if a miracle happens and they actually are prosecuted.

I only see this harebrained scheme working with drunk students who try to nick a bike, get caught and start making lemonade in their trousers/calling mummy and daddy to pay up when confronted with the prospect of spending some time in the tank.

Quite

 

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Jenova20 replied to Captain Badger | 2 years ago
0 likes
Captain Badger wrote:

At the risk of seeming woke, wooly, left, liberal etc. How does the state establish guilt of being a bike thief "on the spot"?

And will a fine, likely that the recipient can't pay, stop future thefts?

Cos that's what I want to see. Rather than fining/incarcerating/pilorying/transporting thieves, I want to see a society where folk are less likely to meander down that kind of life path in the first place, or if they do receive meaningful support to ensure they meander back the way they came to where we want them to be.

 

Person seen cutting a bike lock off in public

PLOD: "Here's your fine, and we're confiscating that bike. If you believe this is an error provide proof of bike ownership and claim it from the police station, where we will cancel the fine".

This, of course only works if they catch them in the act...

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Captain Badger replied to Jenova20 | 2 years ago
1 like
Jenova20 wrote:

......

Person seen cutting a bike lock off in public

PLOD: "Here's your fine, and we're confiscating that bike. If you believe this is an error provide proof of bike ownership and claim it from the police station, where we will cancel the fine".

This, of course only works if they catch them in the act...

And the rozzer is omniscient, incorruptible and fully objective.

And it still doesn't address what exactly this policy will achieve, apart from gaining some vainly-hoped-for, short-lived, haut-rouge kudos on announcement, after which the local rozzers will quickly deprioritise.....

Let's say for instance that the rozzers capture a significant number of these miscreants. Where are the bikes going to be kept? Have the policy makers funded a suitable storage facility? I should coco! 

If they catch them in the act, why not arrest and charge? could it be that the policymakers are downgrading bike theft from a criminal offence to a civil matter?

IF I get my bike recovered, I have no interest in someone getting a fine which in all probability they won't/can't pay. I would though want to know that any policy  response will be relevant, and demonstrably have a positive effect on the prevention of reoffending. i'd also be keen to know that other crime prevention programs were being implemented.

Of course these things require thought, planning, investment, vision, long-termism, resources, and competent policymakers. Nah, let's trumpet that we'll fine the bastards, who must have dunnit cos a rozzer said so.

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Jenova20 replied to Captain Badger | 2 years ago
1 like

They can store them in the evidence lockers at WMP headquarters...They must be empty based on their crime solving record...They don't even find a suspect in about 99% of burglary cases (Worst record in the UK).

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Captain Badger replied to Jenova20 | 2 years ago
0 likes
Jenova20 wrote:

They can store them in the evidence lockers at WMP headquarters...They must be empty based on their crime solving record...They don't even find a suspect in about 99% of burglary cases (Worst record in the UK).

🤣

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BIRMINGHAMisaDUMP | 2 years ago
1 like

not wishing to sound too cynical but i don't think there is an answer to bike theft other than personal responsibility; lock it up with quality locks, put a motion alarm on the bike, put a 'Dutch style' wheel lock to immobilise the wheel . . . . . Bikes are too easy to steal and too easy to sell on. And the consequences of being caught are minimal. I don't think a fine will make much difference. 

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hawkinspeter replied to BIRMINGHAMisaDUMP | 2 years ago
1 like
Lukas wrote:

not wishing to sound too cynical but i don't think there is an answer to bike theft other than personal responsibility; lock it up with quality locks, put a motion alarm on the bike, put a 'Dutch style' wheel lock to immobilise the wheel . . . . . Bikes are too easy to steal and too easy to sell on. And the consequences of being caught are minimal. I don't think a fine will make much difference. 

There's other things that could be tried, but they'll cost money. Frame manufacturers could easily enough embed RFID chips into products though that would then require a bunch of automated readers put everywhere or have police/bike shops scan every bike they see.

An alternative is embedding GPS tech into frames that allow for easy recharging but not easily removed/disabled (though I'm pretty sure wrapping it in foil would stop GPS from working).

Of course, bikes can be stolen just for their components, so a similar approach would be needed for expensive components too which would be more of a hassle.

The other approach is to go after the thieves. Lots of honeypot bikes (i.e. bikes fitted with a hidden tracker) waiting to be stolen would be easy enough to do, though we'd need to enable police to have more resources to deal with them.

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BIRMINGHAMisaDUMP replied to hawkinspeter | 2 years ago
0 likes

I forgot to mention the tracker - I have one on my cargo bike. It vibrates my phone if the bike is moved. And if stolen I can track it. Recovering it may not be straightforward though.  

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Hirsute replied to BIRMINGHAMisaDUMP | 2 years ago
1 like

How do you retro fit a Dutch style lock ?

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Rendel Harris replied to Hirsute | 2 years ago
0 likes
hirsute wrote:

How do you retro fit a Dutch style lock ?

Loads available from manufacturers like Abus, Axa, Kryptonite and others - they usually come with a variety of seat stay/down tube/mudguard mount fixing options. 

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Sriracha replied to BIRMINGHAMisaDUMP | 2 years ago
2 likes

That seems like a self-fulfilling analysis - theft happens so live with it. No amount of "personal responsibility" is proof against angle grinders.

Fear, well founded, of having your bike nicked is a massive deterent to using it for transport. The whole notion of e/bikes substituting for car journeys can't work if you can't park. If the authorities are serious about replacing car journeys then telling people it's basically their fault if their bike gets nicked won't cut it.

VanMoof have shown that there are solutions. Obviously their execution is particular to their ebikes. A different approach will be required for the mass of ordinary bicycles, but what VanMoof have shown is that a determination to succeed is what yields results.

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Captain Badger replied to Sriracha | 2 years ago
1 like
Sriracha wrote:

That seems like a self-fulfilling analysis - theft happens so live with it. No amount of "personal responsibility" is proof against angle grinders. Fear, well founded, of having your bike nicked is a massive deterent to using it for transport. The whole notion of e/bikes substituting for car journeys can't work if you can't park. If the authorities are serious about replacing car journeys then telling people it's basically their fault if their bike gets nicked won't cut it. VanMoof have shown that there are solutions. Obviously their execution is particular to their ebikes. A different approach will be required for the mass of ordinary bicycles, but what VanMoof have shown is that a determination to succeed is what yields results.

Exactly. Personal responsibility doesn't cut it against scenarios that are not controllable by the individual - see where the individual responsibility approach to covid got us.

Bike theft has a demonstrable deleterious  effect on the implementation of vital public policy - that of reducing car use. Therefore there needs to be a policy response in mitigation. Fining people (if caught, whether they're the "right" people or not) is not it.

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Rendel Harris | 2 years ago
1 like

Were I criminally minded and didn't care about having a record, that would almost serve as an incentive - a well equipped thief could easily lift £10k of machinery in a couple of hours in London in the right areas, if all one had to fear was a fine of 2.5% of the potential profit the risk/reward balance seems pretty favourable.

(I realise it says "organised gangs and repeat offenders – such as those we have outlined above – will be pursued through the courts" but one can think of a number of strategies to circumvent that...)

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RoubaixCube | 2 years ago
2 likes

"if caught" -- being the keyword. Belgium is going to start seeing a new wave of bike thieves that come out in full TT attire and spend their days off on the turbo trainer with the sole purpose of being fast enough on the bike to outrun the police.

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