Online crime reporting nets little justice

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DENVER -- If you’ve had your bike stolen or shed broken into or car window smashed in Denver, the chances you’re going to get any justice are less than 1 percent.

It’s a pathetic figure, one FOX31 Denver Problem Solvers uncovered while investigating a rash of bicycle part thefts from a popular train station.

In the before-dawn darkness, construction project engineer Anderson Lewis begins his commute. Living only a five-minute ride from the Knox Street light rail station, Lewis regularly cycles to catch the train downtown.

He secures his bike with ever-growing vigor, locking the frame and wheels to a sturdy rack in a lit area surrounded by nine Regional Transportation District cameras.

CHRIS HALSNEEvery day, when he boards the train, Lewis has no idea if he can ride the bike back home. Four times in less than a year, he has returned to see parts torn off and stolen.

“Slowly over the last year, my bike has walked away piece by piece, starting with the rear wheel and cassette, followed by the rear wheel, followed by the seat post and seat followed some lights,” Lewis said. “The frustrating part for me is to spend more on bike parts than I actually spent on the bike in the first place.”

Last month, his entire bike disappeared from the back of his house, stolen with virtually no chance of it being recovered.

When Lewis called the Denver Police Department to report the crimes, he was told no officer was available in person to take a report. Instead, he was encouraged to go online to file a complaint.

That’s when FOX31 Problem Solvers started asking about the success rate of the system. According to a large database provided to FOX31 Denver as part of an open records request, in the past five years, Denver police have taken more than 66,000 online crime reports.

The findings include 68 percent of those were immediately declared “inactive -- early case disclosure.” Victims call that the equivalent of putting the complaints in the trash can. About 30 percent of the remaining crimes were assigned to a detective.

Overall, only 570 of the more than 66,000 cases resulted in an arrest or a citation. That means citizens who file online crime reports have less than a 1 percent chance of the criminal getting caught.

Denver police Lt. John Pettinger, a crime data expert, said when police come to take a crime report in person and there are no suspects, evidence or witnesses, officers are mostly acting as filing clerks. In his opinion, that’s something that wastes resources for more serious investigations.

“Most of the time when someone creates an online report, there really is no additional information that a detective could go on,” Pettinger said. “So two-thirds of them have no solvability factors so the detective may not be assigned to it.”

But Pettinger said filing the online crime reports is not a waste of time. Doing so helps police identify “patterns” that might solve a string of similar crimes.

“The police department has devoted a lot of resources to data. We do have a crime analysis unit. Even though a detective might not be the one looking for the patterns, there are several people dedicated to identify patterns,” Pettinger said.

“One person reporting it doesn’t really help us, but 20 or 30 people that could be reporting that, we could catch them the one time and clear up the 20 or 30 cases.”

Police have set up the online reporting system to flag certain types of cases for a more active investigation. When a citizen fills out the forms, the computerized questions will tell you if you need to call 911 or have an officer come to the crime scene.

That kind of reassurance provides little solace to Lewis. As a repeat victim of property crime, he wants to see someone caught and sent to jail.

“I know it’s difficult to track anything down, especially without any VIN numbers from the person, but I’d be curious to see where these bike parts and bikes actually go," Lewis said.

FOX31 Denver Problem Solvers asked RTD security if its staff would pull and analyze the video taken from the nine cameras around the Knox Street station around the times when Lewis lost bike parts to thieves. RTD said it keeps most video for several weeks but had already erased the days that might have helped solve Lewis’ cases.

In the meantime Lewis said he’s going to buy a bike “from the '80s” and “about as cheap as you can get” to keep commuting on two wheels. He said he’s concerned about his carbon footprint and refuses to let criminals knock him off that path.

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