Have We Got the Metal?

I’ve lived in Greenfield one year and have been robbed 7 times. Each has been property theft. Each has seemed to target metallic items. It has cost me over $25,000.

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!

13 thoughts on “Have We Got the Metal?”

  1. Ed Schmidt kind asnwered one of what might have been my first questions after reading Richard Sapienza’s original submission above; that is, have there been many instances of metal fences, such as wrought iron or chain link ones, being stolen? (If someone with a pick-up truck could carry around with ’em a light-weight oxygen-acetelyne cutting torch, or something similar, there are often lots of iron fences in bigger cities, such as there are certainly in New Orleans, then, if it continues to be so easy to sell metal, then they could easily travel the states, filling up their pickup with metal each night, selling somewhere the next day and traveling on – as long as they kept moving and varied their routes it would probably be difficult to catch ’em – well, maybe not with the New Orlean’s fences as some of them, such as the Corn Fence, are quite distinctive.)

    My second question is more like a comment; as a travel myself I have had host families for whom I’ve helped scrap, and take scrap metal to scrap yards, in several states, and I’ve noticed that, for the most part, rigorous ID checking is only necessary when taking in a vehicle to have scrapped.

    As a kind of unrelated FYI, but possibly interesting to some, I once stayed at a mission in Biloxi, Mississippi for a few days where we had to work. On most days many of us sat at a wooden anvil and with a hammer busted rocks and concrete turning it into gravel, but on a rainy day we sat under carports and used utility knives to strip the insulation from wire, both copper and aluminum, as I recall (with different bins for each), so that the bare wire could be sold to a scrap yard.

    Speaking of cars, wasn’t there once a junk yard near Greenfield that was involved in scrapping cars, selling them in Dayton or somewhere?

  2. Who knows who their neighbors are anymore? We don’t visit over the back fence anymore. People move in and out and you don’t get a chance to meet or greet them as they work out of town or night shift. If they work at all. Some don’t seem to want to get aquainted at all and don’t care. My old neighborhood was full of good people that watched what went on for supicious happenings. This one we are in now, there are a few who are looking out for others. Not like the old one though. not as close.

  3. I didn’t know it was this bad til Dec.12, 2011….Our house was broken into and one year old 5,000 generator was taken from back porch…Contacted the Ross county sheriff and three days later received a responce…by this time the foot prints and whell tracks were gone by snow and rain.
    So I started my own investagation, going around to the local scrap, and others that deal with these items…..Filled out a police report.and one of my people I had contacted was in prosesion of my generator…..So I was one of the lucky ones and got it back….the boys that took it were just charged with receiving stolen property…..and since then been arrested a few more times…….so its just like a revolving door.in one out the other..

  4. Copping a plea is a way of life and as long as local governments are strapped for cash and the jails are filled it will remain so. I don’t know if salvage yards are licensed business or if licensing would help with the problem. Pawn shops are faced with the same problems but we license them and require they make certain attempts at proving what they purchase or take on pawn is legitimate. Most proposed solutions will eventually fall on the shoulders of law enforcement and I’m pretty sure they are already overburdened. The most immediate solution, to me, would involve community involvement and self-policing. I’ve mentioned the program Nextdoor (www.nextdoor.com) and did some research about community policing and forming sanctioned public patrols. Lots of cities are doing this, including Cincinnati. They have a number of city owned vehicles manned with trained volunteers, helping to patrol their low-crime areas so the guys with guns can concentrate on the high-crime areas. The technology is in place for people to easily and affordably communicate with each other and the authorities.

  5. It is certainly a shame that all of this theft is taking place. Other than the hit to Dr. Sapienza’s pocket book, the metal being stolen has set Greenfield back in other ways; it has, I believe, prevented his great plans for implementing exciting green technologies as well as other programs to improve our community from taking place. As a community, this should be a HUGE concern.

    Let us examine the likely causes of metal theft. One reason obviously is the lack of real work to do in Greenfield. When one steals from potential employers, one is depriving honest people who want to legitimately work for their income “potential jobs.” It is like a starving snake consuming itself from the tail up to satisfy its hunger.
    We live in a community that feeds off of welfare far more than the average town its size. The worse the economy gets, the more problematic the theft will be, and it will only grow worse until we can get some of these people to work.

    Sadly, I can almost guarantee that the culprits of these crimes are drug addicts. In other words, they are virtually “unemployable” due to drug testing and other obvious problems that accompany use of drugs such as apathy and declining physical health. We really need to address the drug problem in this community. Drug use starts early on. A community center and other after school programs would likely give kids a better outlet for their shenanigans.

    There are no easy solutions. It has to be a community wide effort on various fronts to improve our situation.

  6. I was going to post this idea on your last article. I work for Half Price Books and we make people have a photo government ID and we take the info and they sign a contract stating the goods belong to them and they have the right to sell. I wouldn’t be surprised if scrap dealers are supposed to do this allready but just don’t follow the law. In most cases in Ohio as in Illinois if you’re the business of selling and or buying used goods ad ID is required. I think if Highland County is considering legislation they should make it two forms of government ID. Most criminal and addicts have a hard enough time keeping track and making sure one Id is valid that this would cut down on sales immensely.

    Another solution would be if the judges handed down real sentences and the County Prosecutor quit letting everyone plea bargain their sentences down to to nothing, a Felon registery, or some good old fashioned vigilantism .

    1. Photo IDs would not work in Texas.The Attorny general of America just said it is unconstitinal to make people have them…..

      1. What I was saying is if 90% of the people can get to a government office to get food stamps, welfare, free medical.. free dental they can get to a government office for a photo ID to sell scrap metal ,vote or what ever the rest of us have to do to cope with life…..Anyway in 2008 the US surpreme court said it was constitunal to have photo IDs in Indiana…..to vote…

  7. All this is upsetting to those of us (but maybe I’m the only one) who remember Greenfield as a kind of Mayberry where, as a cops reporter for the paper in 62-63, I don’t recall writing one story about theft. As an American, however, I am mostly chagrined by the scrap-metal boom which enables Chinese industrialists to recycle our steel and sell it back to us at Walmart, again and again (unlike nearly everything else, recast steel never weakens).

  8. My wife just came home this week with a rumor that someone in town was caught selling some manhole covers to a local scrap dealer. I think IDing scrap metal is a major problem and the junk dealers know it. Manhole covers, however, usually have identifying marks molded into them. Plus, if someone comes in with half dozen big cast iron plates that say City of Greenfield on them, that’s a clue. It’s also evidence that the junk man who bought them is a freakin’ crook. Just saw where a company in Hillsboro lost some equipment to metal thieves and it was recovered when the police visited a scrapper, IDed the equipment, and traced it to the thieves through a signed receipt. Maybe just requiring sellers of scrap to provide photo ID at the time sale would slow things down some.

  9. I’ve been away from Greenfield for a long time, but I used to hear stories about the local crime waves from my dad, at least up until 1993, when he passed. So, perhaps we should look at the historical perspective on things like the metal thefts going on right now (incidentally, this has been a growing problem up here in the big city also). The first incident I remember hearing about here in Columbus was the theft of the electrical connection covers from those gigantic aluminum street lights on the freeway. This led to the requirement that all scrap aluminum had to bear the SS number of the seller. I had an aluminum extension ladder and snow shovel that I was stupid enough to leave outside stolen during a snow storm. The tracks of the thief were visible, but not far enough to apprehend. Currently, the big item seems to be copper; a local food pantry had the plumbing for it’s refrigeration equipment stolen resulting in the loss of over $100K in groceries earmarked for poor people. One of our local habitual criminals was apprehended stealing the copper rain gutters from an old church in Marysville, north of here. I’ve also heard of cast iron manhole covers being stolen; and, indeed, a section of wrought iron fence that my wife was planning on incorporating into our garden disappeared from our driveway.

    I think it’s important to let people know just what sort of metals are being targeted: that would make both stealing them harder and identifying the “fences” easier. If I remember correctly, the Greenfield Historical Society suffered a copper theft shortly before the all-class reunion last summer.

    Of course, Mr. Sapienza examined the two different views of the causes for this sort of crime in his article. I must admit, I come down on both sides: On the one hand, these sorts of things are the result of hard economic times: People don’t steal if they can obtain money by other means (leaving out the psychotic types, of course). The more theft, the harder the times. On the other hand, the conservative view holds merit also: The “Why should I work and make money to buy stuff if I can just steal yours” ethic has always been with us, which clearly indicates a flawed individual. Maybe part of the solution is to re-ignite something that used to be common in Greenfield: Neighbors looking out for each other. It’s harder to do up here in the big city where you don’t necessarily know your neighbors, but Greenfield used to be famous for kids not being able to get away with ANYTHING! Maybe our adults need the same treatment now.

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