Dear PoPville – Did We Do the Right Thing by Calling the Cops?

Photo by PoPville flickr user jennverr

Dear PoPville,

I wanted to get your readers’ thoughts on how they would handle the run-in I had last night with potential bike thieves.

I was walking home from the Metro around 11:30pm last night after the Nats game. My boyfriend and I were walking up 14th St. on the West side of the street toward our apartment when we saw — actually, first we heard it — a man hammering (with an actual hammer, loudly) the u-lock of a bike locked in front of Pan Lourdes, across the street from us. He wasn’t alone — another man was alternately helping him and, it seemed, keeping a look out. There were others around us, and while everyone turned their heads at the sound and looked perplexed as to why someone would be hammering a bike lock open, no one did anything.

After my boyfriend tried to draw attention to the men, thinking they would stop what they were doing or at least explain that it was their bike they were taking, with no success, I did the only thing I could think of that was safe — called 911. As I was on the phone describing the men and what they were doing to the operator, they looked over at me and seemed to get what I was doing — but still didn’t say anything, they just stared at us.

We walked down the street a block, and sure enough a policeman pulled up beside them (shout out to the MPD for their quick reaction time!). We were too far away to see what happened after that, but we didn’t see anyone fleeing and there seemed to be no violence or shouting.

I’m curious about whether people think our reaction — calling the emergency line, in plain sight of the possible perps, on a couple of guys who may have just been retrieving their bike to which they lost the key — was appropriate or not. In the moment and in retrospect, our justifications were: 1) it was suspicious that this was happening at 11:30pm, 2) they unconcealed way they were doing it seemed to be a coverup, 3) no one else was doing a thing, which seemed irresponsible to us, and 4) I had a bike stolen from that same location 2 years ago and I wanted to do everything in my power to stop that from happening to another person, even if it meant calling the cops on innocent men.

78 Comment

  • austindc

    Yes, that is appropriate and exactly what you should have done. Thank you!

  • You did the right thing. 🙂 So many people I know have had bikes stolen in DC, and it’s often from places that had a ton of foot traffic when it happened.

  • Allison

    Exactly the right thing. So glad to read that a Dear PoPville poster actually called the cops for once.

  • You did the right thing. We need more people like you. Great Job!!!!

  • Good for you for doing the right thing. If the men owned the bike (and they probably didn’t), they should appreciate that a citizen cared enough to call the cops on people who may have been stealing their bike.

  • mtpgal

    I think calling the police was totally appropriate. I would, however, felt uncomfortable doing it right in front of the guys but then I’m probably a wimp. Glad you’re okay!

  • I probably would not have done it right in front of them. I might have gone around the corner. I think I’d be too afraid they would come after me if they knew what I was doing.

  • You did the right thing. If its all innocent then the let the police ask those questions and deal with it. thanks for calling 911. (thats the only line to call I am fairly certain 311 is just for service requests now)

  • sunsquashed

    Yep, you did the right thing….. Thanks for being a good citizen.

  • This seems crazy, almost unbelievable. The person reports a bike theft and they’re wondering if they did the right thing?!

    • We don’t know for sure that it was a bike theft. And how does the person prove they’re not stealing the bike when the cop shows up? She did the right thing, but I would have felt conflicted in that situation too.

      • Thank your fellow citizens in advance for dialing 911, and not wringing their hands, when a criminal appears to be violating your property or personal safety.

      • Since when does a citizen need to “know for sure” that a crime is taking place to report it to the police?? Report suspicious activity. I can imagine borderline suspicious activity, but the OP’s facts are not borderline suspicious, and shouldn’t cause any “conflict.”

        • I never said they did. But I don’t think it’s completely ridiculous for the OP to feel bad that they may have gotten innocent people arrested. The facts indicate it could have been the bike’s owner, who was just trying to get home after the game and couldn’t get his lock off for some reason.

  • It’s entirely possible the guy was also at the Nats game (that’s why he was out at 11:30 pm) and lost his bike key and had a small group of friends/random people helping him get the lock off. As long as they were calm and civil to the police officer I’m sure nothing bad happened to them. There is a possibility that they were innocent, yet still got arrested, if they became upset about being questioned by the police officer. Or if they were black and there was racial profiling going on. I do understand where you’re coming from because a lot of innocent people get arrested in situations like this and I’d hate to be the one responsible for it. But I think you did the right thing. You probably prevented a bike theft, or if the guy rightfully owned the bike hopefully he and the police officer were polite enough to avoid a nasty confrontation.

  • OF COURSE you should have called the police. If each of us looked out only for his or her person and property, then criminals would have nothing to fear but patrolling police and their victim. But if each of us also looks out for strangers, then criminals are confronted with a massive challenge! Looking out for others makes the whole city safer, and it is the best reason to call the police.

    On the chance that the activity was innocent (e.g., the suspect freeing his own bike from a lock after losing the key), then the police should make that determination. Given the frequency of bike theft and impunity of bike thieves, it is highly unlikely that this was not a crime in progress.

    The only thing you should have done differently is call 911 in an inconspicuous way. By making obvious what you were doing, you (1) possibly put yourself in danger and (2) tipped them off to expect the police.

    One other thing: certainly make the 911 call, but do not count on the police to arrive in time to catch the criminals. Especially if you are a busy route like 14th Street, look to flag down a passing police car.

    • The only problem I see in that logic is that the police are not always the best judges of whether someone is innocent or not. Even if the charges are dropped, it sucks to be locked up just because someone called the police and the cop who showed up didn’t like you for whatever reason. I do agree that this was probably a bike theft, but it’s a little odd that the guys didn’t flee when they knew the police were coming.

      • Hmm. Criminals stealing with IMPUNITY = evidence of innocence.

        How many stories have been shared here of bike theft in plain view of bystanders?

      • orderedchaos

        “the police are not always the best judges of whether someone is innocent”

        Perhaps — but the police are *certainly* better judges than a casual, untrained bystander. Calling 911 was the right, er, call.

        • Hopefully you’re right! Sadly, it can be hard to train ingrained racial biases out of people.

          • The OP never mentioned race when discussing the alleged perps, so for all we know they could have been white, yellow, or purple. Interesting (and ironic?) that you bring up the racial angle here regarding police bias. Didn’t your own bias just reveal itself?

          • No, not at all. But I knew someone would have a problem with me saying everything was probably be fine if the guys were innocent, as long as they were white.

          • That some of my neighbors have qualms about reporting the activity described by the OP makes me a little sad, and confused. I am white, and if I were hammering a u-lock off my own bike at 11:30 pm on 14th St., I would be concerned if anyone passed by without calling the police. I’d have to conclude that such people cared about no one but themselves.

  • You did the right thing.

    I call the cops all the time when I see something suspicious. It’s good to move sketchy people along–or at least to let them know someone is watching.

    You are doing your neighborhood a favor!

    • I agree, but you’re assuming these guys actually were sketchy. It’s good to make sketchy people move along, but it’s also a bad thing to make non-sketchy people feel like they’re being harassed for no reason. I moved out of Northern Virginia because of a few incidents like this.

      • No, he’s only assuming the OP’s account of what happened, which is totally sketchy.

      • Wait… you moved out of DC because you were reported for smashing off bike locks?

      • Yeah, but *looking* sketchy and *acting* sketchy are two different things. If you are hammering away at a bike lock at 11:30pm with a second guy who appears to be assisting you you really shouldn’t be surprised if someone (possibly a cop) questions you.

  • It would have been nice if someone had called the cops on Sunday night when I was being verbally accosted by a group of ner-do-wells across from DCUSA after I confronted one of them for throwing something at me while I was on my bike.

    If only I were a bike!

  • When we fulfill their civic duty to report crime, it makes the city safer.

    When many of us tell ourselves, It’s not my business, or Conceivably it’s not a crime or I shouldn’t put myself in danger, criminals detect the permissive climate that results. Regular readers of this blog are too familiar with stories of bike theft, and far more serious crime, committed with impunity before bystanders.

    On the other hand, when residents make a point to observe possible criminal threats to strangers, and not just the possible risks to themselves, and immediately report any suspicious activity, we totally change the game for criminals.

    Criminals eventually view bystanders as most bystanders view themselves and act. By acting as sentinels rather than as disinterested individuals, we make the city safer for all of us.

  • You definitely did the right thing. From your story, the actions of these two people appears definitely sketchy enough to warrant a call to police. It’s up to the police to investigate and decide if anything criminal was going on, and then decide what actions to take (or maybe not take). Don’t worry yourself about being a good citizen and looking out for your neighbors’ property.

  • Here’s why I think you did the right thing. Yes, it’s possible that this was someone who lost his bike key. But I find it unlikely that he lost his bike key but happened to have a hammer handy.

    • He could have asked someone in the neighborhood (presumably the second guy in the scene described by the OP) if they had a hammer. Or maybe he lives in the neighborhood and grabbed a hammer from home. Or maybe it wasn’t an actual hammer, but some other tool being used as a hammer (don’t some bikers carry repair kits with them?).

      Sometimes it helps to just ask when you see something that looks odd. A few nights ago I saw a guy pulling off a manhole sewer cover, with a women glancing around nervously. It was a suspicious scene, but I went up and asked them what happened. The guy showed me where his wife’s phone had fallen deep into the gutter. He didn’t live nearby, so I offered to bring him any household item from my home that he thought would help him with the task (unfortunately we couldn’t come up with anything). I know sometimes people look scary and you don’t want to put yourself in danger, but sometimes they’re not so bad.

      • Last night I saw what first appeared to be a burglar breaking into a house. He had smashed a basement window and was removing a bicycle. Rather than call the police, I walked up to him and asked what was going on. He explained that he had locked himself out. I asked about the bicycle, and he said that he was late for a meeting. I’m glad I spared the police the trouble.

      • They could have been actors practicing a scene in which they steal a bike.

      • Removing a man-hole cover seems odd, certainly, but suspicious? What crime did you suspect him of committing? Stealing the iron for scrap? Planting a bomb? With his wife standing there?

        Retrieving something from below is precisely what I would guess he was doing.

        That behavior is in no way analogous to the guy trying to hammer off a bike lock at 11:30 pm while is buddy is serving as look-out.

  • 911 in DC is NOT an emergency-only line. It is for emergencies and ANY and ALL police response.

  • Thank you for being a good citizen. If everyone did the same, there would be far less crime.

  • I have called 911 3 times during witness of a crime. The only time they made it fast enough to be of help was when a man was kind of beating on a woman in the street in Adams Morgan. I walked slowly following them, I didn’t want to intervene or get too close. The guy got away but they were able to help the girl. The other times in Petworth were witnessing teens breaking into and stealing from a car, and later carrying a concealed weapon. Both times I was really scared to let the perps see me, but called anyway, and both times the cops took way too long and they got away.

  • If more of us took responsibility like this, or even cared just a little, the quality of life in our city would go up, fast. That’s true, all along the continuum from littering and illegal parking to whatever goes on in the Wilson Building.

    Doing nothing, or not caring, just lends affirmation and encouragement to the wrongdoers.

    Thanks for doing the right thing, and speaking up.

    • Indeed. This is an example of caring about other people too much. You have to be a little callous when reporting something suspicious, and not worry that you might be getting an innocent person in trouble. The small risk of getting an innocent person arrested is still not worth the cost of doing nothing. It would be downright tragic to have yet another bike stolen in this city.

  • Hell yes you did the right thing. Good job

  • And a man who appears to be assaulting a woman *could* just be doing 50 Shades of Grey cosplay with her, so you should use caution and not call 911 about that either.

  • “Did We Do the Right Thing by Calling the Cops?”

    Without even knowing what the story is I think it’s pretty safe to assume the answer from commentators on this blog is always going to be a resounding YES!

    • You’re right, because only letters to PoPville express angst about reporting obviously criminal activity! Thankfully most readers, unlike you, do read the facts.

      • I don’t get what you’re trying to say here.

        • I think the point was that what’s unusual here isn’t an eagerness of commenters to call the police (as suggested by the prior commenter) but rather hand-wringing letters about whether to report an obvious crime.

  • To join the near unanimous voice here, absolutely OP did the right thing. And on the assumption that it was a theft, the person you kept from becoming a victim will never know who you are, but probably would thank you profusely.

    A few years ago, I benefited from a similar kindness of strangers (with a big assist from MoCo police) with a “see something, say something” mindset. Kid took bolt cutters to my bike lock at the Metro station in the middle of the day, someone saw him in the act and reported it, and cops got there in time to catch him as he was riding away. His excuse when apprehended was “I lost the key and had to cut it off.” Luckily, the cop didn’t buy it … and came back and waited 3+ hrs. for me to show up and make the sort of facial expression that only someone who realized his ride has been jacked can make. I ID’d the bike, got it back, and thanked the cop profusely. But I WISH I also could have thanked the person who called it in … not only saved me the cost of the bike, but saved a little bit of my faith in humanity, too.

  • alxindc

    It does not matter what other people think, what matters is what you think. After all, one has to live with one’s consciousness, not with the opinions of strangers.

  • that’s what we citizens are supposed to do… don’t question yourself for reporting a possible theft. if it was their bike, they can explain that to the cops.

    • How can you prove it’s your bike in that situation, though? I’m just wondering in case I ever lose the key to my u-lock. The fact that my bike is a piece of junk and not worth anything ought to be proof enough, but try telling that to a cop.

  • Look at the brightside… even if the guys were innocent, at least it made a good story for them to share! “There was this one time when I lost my bike lock… That night ended with being released from the police station at 5AM.”

  • so that was you?? thanks for getting me arrested while trying to open my damaged bike lock……

  • The OP did the right thing… although calling within view (and maybe earshot?) of the suspicious guys was potentially risky.

    In a similar situation in the future, you might want to text 50411:,A,1230,Q,569047.asp

    (Although I wonder if texts are treated with the same urgency as 911 phone calls.)

  • Surprised the MPD responded at all, let alone almost on command. Had a roommate watch as his stereo was stolen out of his car at NOON on a SATURDAY at the base of Malcolm X park, and the Cops flat out said; “Yeah, we don’t respond to property crime. We’ll send a unit around when they are in the area.” When first spotted, the guy was in the car a good 5 minutes, walked slowly up into the park to examine his hand which he cut while trying to rip the unit out of the car, sat there another several minutes and then slowly walked off thru the park.

    45 minutes later, the Officers that responded acting like they were doing my roommate a favor even filing a report, and had the nerve to get pissy when asked if 45 minutes was a typical response time, for our area. I can see it, if it’s peak hours for crime, and a theft already occured, but a theft IN PROGRESS in broad daylight doesn’t warrant any immediate action? Complete BS.

  • I wish this would have been a user poll.

  • well, for sure, check out this link to a NY Times piece and video about the very same issue— where a guy as an experiment tries to brazenly steal his own bike in broad daylight….to see whether anyone cares.

  • Kudos to you for calling the police.
    And kudos to the police for responding.
    But the fact that this guy was hammering away on the lock for as long as he was pretty much proves he wasn’t a bike thief. A real bike thief would have had that bike in about 30 seconds.
    In any event, if he was the real owner and was embarrassed or inconvenienced by having to deal with the cops, he should appreciate that someone tried to prevent what they thought was the theft of his bike.

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