In the past, thieves generally stole for their own immediate consumption. Thus, all things equal, a cheap car stereo is at a lower risk of theft than an expensive in-demand car stereo. My cheap cellphone, which doesn’t even have a camera is at less risk of theft than the newest iPhone. And so on. However, metal theft is a new crime; in which the item is not as important as the stuff from which it is made. An item’s risk of theft is now limited only by the value of its constituent parts and its exposure. And a lot of things in our community and homes are both made of metal and exposed to potential thieves. So, we keep seeing metal theft news stories that roll out laundry lists of stolen items, all unrelated except that they contain metal.
Scrap metal represents a big USA export, mainly to China. Recycled metal has become critical to the accelerated production in overseas industrial goods, and that demand has set in motion a new level of lawlessness. Police have been overwhelmed with reports of stolen metal items of all shapes and sizes in residential, commercial and industrial areas. A combination of high demand on the international market, recognition that ample metal supplies remain unguarded (an easy crime), and weak regulation of the metals resale market have coincided to increase the metal theft problem. The basic demand for metal raises its price, making it worth the effort for some folks to steal and some others to “receive.” As an example, The Associated Press reported the beer keg industry is losing $50 million a year as customers are forfeiting their cash deposits and taking their empty kegs to scrap dealers instead.
Metal theft and crime generally, has always served as an excellent Rorschach test of one’s politics, a big ink blot to which anyone can ascribe the characteristics they desire and fix the blame as they wish. For liberals crime has been the result of social economic conditions and disparity. For conservatives it has been individual moral depravity and maladjustment. Ideology is great, because it provides easy answers to complex problems. This frees up more time for blame, hostility, and self-righteous indignation. Sadly, this also moves us further away from the ultimate goal of creating safer communities.
Scrap metal buyers provide the critical link for creating profit from metal theft. Metal theft is driven entirely by the ability to sell stolen goods to recyclers, and often these recyclers facilitate crime. Studies have shown that the number of scrap yards in a city correlates with that city’s rate of metal thefts and crime – I can count 5 scrap metal places in Greenfield alone.We must change our opinions about receiving and selling stolen goods, where buyers do not recognize the crime as much as “getting a good deal”.
When legitimate scrap metal dealers refuse to buy suspected stolen metal, thieves seek out a gray-market dealer who will pay considerably less.
Thieves have stolen for selling on a vast black and gray market for secondhand goods, consisting of pawnshops, flea markets, bars, sidewalk stands, etc. (and more recently internet sites like Craigslist and eBay). The market for any one item, however, has still been constrained by the demand for that item. Metal is not a gray market item.
Importantly, all things are not equal, and a potential thief’s choice of target is still constrained by many other factors besides metal content, such as the presence of surveillance, the thief’s technical skills and know-how, size/transportability of the target, and more. Consequently, we can identify locations and specific items that are especially susceptible to metal theft and “harden” those targets to reduce the chances of theft.
Our community to confront metal theft problems should consider the different offenders working with scrap metal dealers for profit, and determine how these transactions can become more costly for both parties. This is far from impossible.
Our leaders should pass a Metal Purchase Recordkeeping Ordinance that would establish a documented trail for recyclers and authorities. Scrap metal dealers purchasing or obtaining metal must maintain records for one year and make these available to any peace officer on demand. This record must contain time, date and name of person conducting transaction on behalf of scrap metal dealer. Records must include description of property, including type and amount and any marks on property. Dealers must video or photograph the seller and maintain this for 30 days, accompanied with a photocopy of a driver’s license, passport or state ID card and a signed declaration that property is not stolen The scrap metal dealer who violates this should pay a fine of $1000 or $5000 with three previous convictions.
This basic short-run strategy will raise the criminal’s chances of arrest and conviction and increase the effectiveness of punishment, all without added burden on the taxpayer. Let’s act now!