Editorial: Police should shift gears on bike registry

Editorial: Police should shift gears on bike registry

Thinking about getting a new bicycle? Well, the police department would like to know what you’re buying, whom you’re buying it from and your address, thank you very much. Oh, and officers want to keep all that in a database.

While that scenario might send shivers down the spine of a strident civil libertarian, we’re willing to bet most readers will find it just plain perplexing. After all, why would the police department be interested in tracking bicycle sales?

The official reason is preventing crime and more easily reuniting stolen bicycles with their rightful owners. Under the ordinance, which dates back to the 1960s, shop owners should provide authorities with the necessary details on every bicycle they buy or sell and the individuals involved in the transaction. Though it’s never been enforced, law enforcement officials hope to figure out a way to get bike shops to comply and create a registry in the not-too-distant future.

Fighting crime is a laudable goal but also inefficient and impractical in this case. And complying presents a likely headache for local bike shop owners.

Say a stolen bicycle is recovered in Alexandria. The only way such a database would work is if the bicycle was purchased at a local shop after authorities began enforcing the ordinance.

What if the bicycle was bought in one of our many neighboring jurisdictions? What if it belonged to an individual who lives elsewhere and never had it registered with Alexandria’s authorities? What if it came with a recent transplant from elsewhere in the country — or world?

Finally, what if it was bought at a yard sale, online or just pulled out of a storage shed after years of disuse and given to a friend or neighbor?

Thankfully, there’s already a database in place to assist law enforcement in those scenarios: the National Bike Registry. It’s voluntary and — according to Local Motion, the city’s online transit-information hub — recommended by the police department.

The Times found out about this little-known law because the city council is set to overhaul the bicycle 
ordinance. Since councilors hope to ease restrictions on riding along sidewalks and remove another unenforced section that mandates bicycle owners pay a fee and register their pedal-driven vehicles with City Hall, we hope they will take a hard look at this section as well.

We could make the case that this is an invasion of privacy — there’s probably a bad NSA joke in here somewhere — but the logical and practical arguments strike us as compelling enough. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel — just encourage cyclists to sign their ride up with the National Bike Registry.