What would you do if you saw a bike theft on campus?
Most of us would like to assume that we would do the right thing if we witnessed a crime. On Thursday, the Lumberjack staff challenged that belief. Two experiments were conducted to see how students would react to a bike theft on campus. The experiments were conducted in two different locations on the HSU campus and by males of two different ethnicities. The first theft was performed outside the library by a Caucasian male, the second outside the Depot by an African-American male.
It is not hard to find a student at Humboldt State who has had their bike stolen on campus. After writing that first sentence I circle the library to prove my point.
I ask the guy sitting at the computer next to me if he has ever had his bike stolen at HSU. His name is Chad Herrick. He is a junior environmental engineer major and someone stole his “cheap” but productive Trek hardtail mountain bike from the dorms his freshman year — the freshly-cut lock lay on the ground like flowers on a grave, his bike now just a memory.
Then I find Brett Stacy on the second floor of the library with his nose in a book. A white bicycle helmet sits next to him. Last semester, Stacy — a senior studying oceanography — got a phone call from his girlfriend Aileen. She asked Stacy if he was playing some kind of joke on her, crossing her fingers that he was. Her brand-new, $700 Cannondale mountain bike was gone. It was midday, the sun capable of burning a criminal’s face in a witness’s memory.
“It’s more than just sad,” Stacy said. “You’re disappointed with the quality of a person who would do something like that.” Along with the bike, the criminal stole Stacy’s confidence in strangers.
Records from the University Police Department show that 32 bicycles have been stolen on campus since August 2011. But many bike thefts go unreported.
“I guarantee that it’s probably a significant amount,” UPD Sergeant Melissa Hansen said.
That shattered trust led The Lumberjack to conduct a bike theft experiment on campus. We stole a bike to see what you would do about it. We performed two trials of the experiment. Photographers and reporters — seven in all — staked out in hidden locations around the scene to record what happened. To see video and hear audio from the experiment, go to thelumberjack.org.
In the first trial, a Caucasian male approached a black, Surly Cross Check road bike and with a steel-tooth hacksaw and began slashing the cable lock that tethered the bike to the rail outside the library. It was noon and immense noise protruded from the saw’s steel jaws as it shredded the cable. It took less than seven minutes to cut the lock. The 36 people that walked past did nothing. The “thief” rode off scot-free.
After the trial, Lumberjack reporters scurried to talk to bystanders at the scene. Jerry Saner, a sustainability worker at HSU, saw the whole thing.
“I saw the guy stealing the bike and I thought, maybe I should call the cops,” he said. “Would I have [actually] called? No.”
The location changed for the second trial. So did the “thief.” With another cable lock, we tethered the same bike to a black light post just outside the Depot’s sliding, main-entrance doors — about 20 yards behind the ATM. With photographers and reporters now in place, an African-American male walked up to the bike, slipped the concealed hacksaw from underneath his jacket and began slicing the lock.
More than 50 students sat in the UC Quad while dozens more shuffled through the isles on their way to class. Students passing our “thief” squished their faces in confusion. It took two minutes for Nick Bertolero to stop and confront the “thief.”
“This is freakin’ weird,” Bertolero said. “My first reaction was, ‘Why is this man cutting a bike lock off of this bike without anyone stopping him?’ I was not going to call the authorities because he insisted that it was his bike, and who am I to call him a liar? Additionally, not a single other person around me thought anything of it.”
Rachel Kalssen, a freshman environmental science student, did not want to get too involved as she watched the thief hack at the cable lock.
“I just decided to stick around and eavesdrop to what the person was saying to make sure that the person would call the cops,” Kalssen said. The Lumberjack could not confirm if anyone reported a bike theft in progress to UPD during the trials.
In addition to Bertolero and Kalssen, a pair of middle-aged women and a separate female student faced our thief and inquired if the bike was his. Each walked quickly away from the scene assured by the thief that the bike was his.
It took less than five minutes for the thief in this trial to saw the bike free and ride off — another bike stolen, although this time there were some interventions.
So why did students not intervene, during the first trial? “It could have been pluralistic ignorance,” said Nancy Dye, a social psychologist and lecturer at HSU. “We look at each other to see if anyone else is alarmed. If everyone is just walking by, that becomes the normative behavior, and that’s what everyone else is going to do.”
Dye offered two more possible reasons — one innocent and the other morbid.
“Maybe they were hurrying to class,” Dye said. “Or maybe it’s that we don’t care about each other, that we don’t try to help each other out. We’re too afraid to make a fool of ourselves.”