Reports aside, crime on bike paths rare
By Christin Nance Lazerus email@example.com May 24, 2014 11:19PM
Portage Police Sgt. Mike Vaughn patrols a stretch of the Prairie Duneland trail near Olson Park on Friday. | Christin Nance Lazerus~Sun-Times Media
Updated: June 26, 2014 6:35AM
Two recent reports of assaults on the bike and hiking paths are an anomaly, officials say, as few serious incidents are reported on the 135 miles of trails that wind around Northwest Indiana.
On May 6, a Hobart woman reported that she was knocked off her bike, sexually assaulted, and robbed of her cell phone by a man when she entered the tunnel where the Oak Savanna bike path crosses under Interstate 65 near Liverpool Road in Gary.
Two days later, a Portage man told police that he was attacked with a knife on a part of the Prairie Duneland Trail near the Lake County line and Camelot Mobile Home Park.
Police don’t believe the incidents are related, and they are still under investigation.
Both incidents happened around midday in trail areas that are heavily wooded and about a mile from the nearest road.
Mitch Barloga, who oversees the development of new trails for the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission, said the sometimes more isolated stretches of trails can present safety concerns.
“In no way do trails attract more crime, but there is no easier way to get away from a lot of eyes, so people do need to be careful,” Barloga said. “It always helps when you bring someone along and if you do choose to go alone, choose a time of day where more people might be out. (With headphones on), we can unfortunately be in our own little bubble. It’s matter of being smart and looking at your surroundings.
“Incidents like these are very much the exception and not the norm.”
Barloga said all nine area trails are subject to federal design standards in terms of the width of the trail, but lighting is optional and subject to a municipality’s funding and local ordinances.
“Many if not all are not lit for a reason because communities treat them as parks, which close at dusk,” Barloga said. “If I had my druthers, I would have them lit like roads.”
Municipalities are responsible for maintenance and patrol on their paths.
Portage Sgt. Keith Hughes said police are called out the city’s trails “very infrequently,” with most calls tending toward reports of found bikes, stolen bikes and maybe a suspicious person.
“The only notable incidents I can think of happened a few years ago when some outbuildings near the trail were set on fire,” Hughes said. “We wound up catching the guy, who had just gotten out of prison on an arson conviction.”
The police patrol the Prairie Duneland and Iron Horse Heritage trails daily, Hughes said, on bicycles and ATVs, and twice a day on weekends.
Schererville Patrol Cmdr. Brian Neyhart said there haven’t been any major calls from the Erie-Lackawanna Trail. Police received about 50 calls in the past two years, and they are typically reports of suspicious people or dogs running loose, he said.
Some of the trails are driveable, so police will patrol with squad cars near dusk. Schererville also has a specialty unit that uses ATVs or bicycles to patrol the corridor in warmer months. Crown Point and Merrillville also have special bike patrol units.
The Oak Savanna Trail which runs into Hobart and Griffith is technically a county landholding, Barloga said, so those police departments may patrol in addition to Lake County. Gary officers do not patrol the bike path, but Hobart police use all-terrain vehicles and modified squad cars during the summer.
The incident hasn’t deterred cyclists like Mac Zambrano, a Crown Point resident. He’s used the trails to ride into Griffith for the past four years.
“No, I’m not really worried,” he said.
NIRPC is currently considering 25 trail applications for funding, Barloga said, but crime is a concern of some people who hear trails are coming to their communities.
“There are people who call them crime corridors, who think it will bring crime to their neighborhoods,” Barloga said. “But I have to remind them ‘You know that you’ve got this great big thing in front of your house called a road, right?’
“The major problems on trails are not crime, but maintenance, in terms of making sure trees and bushes are cut back and that pavement is clear of debris.”