Understanding Your Local Problem
The information provided above is a generalized description
of scrap metal theft. You must combine the basic facts with a more specific
understanding of your local problem. Carefully analyzing the local problem will
help you design a more effective response strategy and gain partners to
determine the best solution.
Scrap metal theft problems became
prominent in 2005, yet little systematic research has been done to determine
generalizable causes. Tackling the problem of scrap metal theft requires understanding
the organizational arrangements between sellers and buyers, in addition to
understanding the features of specific theft locations and knowing about individual
offenders. It is important to understand how local demand contributes to scrap
metal theft and how it influences offenders' behavior.
Communities facing scrap metal theft problems might seek help
from university researchers to analyze data about the problem. Indianapolis police
partnered with the University of Indianapolis Community Research
Center to collect data on scrap metal thefts. In this collaborative effort,
known as the Indianapolis Metal Theft Project,30 researchers gathered
and analyzed a wide variety of data related to the costs and types of scrap
metal theft so that police could apply improved strategies to the problem. In
addition to listing cities with the most claims (Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit,
Michigan; Chicago, Illinois) and most claims per population (Cleveland; Flint,
Michigan; Birmingham, Alabama) the study also found that the greater the number
of scrap yards in a city, the greater the number of metal thefts.31
However, the researchers noted several caveats to their findings and emphasized
the value of collaborative efforts among various stakeholders.
In addition to criminal justice agencies, you should
consider the following groups for the contribution they can make in gathering
information and formulating an adequate response to scrap metal theft:
Scrap metal dealers can potentially maximize profits by
paying reduced prices for stolen metal. With proper regulation, however, they
can better maximize their profit and community reputation by avoiding the
purchase of stolen metal and the consequent fines and confiscation of stolen
merchandise. Scrap metal dealers also should have a good understanding of who
is selling or trying to sell stolen metal, as well as the going market for
particular metals. Moreover, scrap metal dealers should be familiar with local
ordinances and/or state legislation that regulate how people buy and sell metal.
Regulatory agencies engaged in environmental protection
may play a role in ensuring scrap metal dealers are operating a responsible
recycling business. Find out what agencies are involved with regulating your
local metal recyclers, and how they may help to change business practices.
Trade associations such as the Institute of Scrap
Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI) can offer a number of resources online under "metal
theft" and have an interest in protecting scrap-dealing businesses. See www.isri.org.
Utility companies have increasingly become proactive in
response to copper theft by encouraging customers to report suspicious activity
and working with police investigators.†
Utility companies' security and risk management personnel are important
advocates for addressing scrap metal theft problems.
Abandoned/vacant-property owners have an interest in
protecting their property from further devaluation, and the neighborhood has an
interest in securing the property so it does not become a crime facilitator.
Metal product manufacturers have an interest in making
sure legitimate customers keep their purchased product. Beer manufacturers have
an interest in customers' getting their keg deposits back. Manufacturers can prevent
theft by coding their product in a way that makes it easily identifiable or
allows police to find the rightful owner after the theft has occurred.
Property insurance companies may be able to provide
information on areas with the highest financial and quantity-of-metal loss. Since
insurance companies need to pay out claims, they have a financial incentive to help
determine the best responses for local scrap-metal theft problems.
Public works departments suffer the loss when thieves
steal a manhole cover or guardrail. Naturally, local property taxes in pending
budgets absorb these costs. Nevertheless, these departments should become
important allies with groups confronting local scrap-metal theft problems by
determining how public-works items can be better secured and not stolen and sold
to scrap metal dealers.
Asking the Right Questions
The following are some critical questions you should ask in
analyzing your particular scrap-metal theft problem, even if the answers are
not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will
help you choose the most appropriate set of responses.
How many scrap metal thefts have occurred in your community? How do
you flag scrap metal theft data in your incident data reports? Most departments
do not track "scrap metal theft" as a separate theft category, but they may
need to do so to assess the problem's severity.
How many scrap metal thefts has your department recorded over the
past year compared with the last few years? Do you have a systematic way to determine
if your scrap metal theft problem is getting better or worse? Is there a way to
determine where the greatest level of victimization is occurring, so you can
allocate resources more efficiently?
Is metal being stolen from abandoned and vacant properties, but
not reported to police?
Are there recent spikes in scrap metal theft? If so, what has
caused those spikes?
Who owns surrounding scrap yards, and has this ownership changed
during the time of increased reported scrap-metal theft? Is a new scrap yard owner/manager
influencing your scrap metal theft problem? Compare metal and/or copper thefts
before and after a change in scrap yard owners.
How do thieves steal the metal?
How many and what type of injuries (such as electrocutions,
falls, lacerations) have thieves incurred stealing metal?
How much does scrap metal theft financially cost the community?
What types of metal are thieves stealing? Is copper the most
sought-after precious metal, and if so, why?
Where are scrap metal thefts occurring?
When are scrap metal thefts occurring (time of day, day of week,
month and season of year)?
Do thieves repeatedly target certain businesses or locations?
Which locations with high amounts of easily transportable metal
have not been victimized, and how are these locations unique?
Which are thieves targeting most: residential, commercial, or
Have thieves stolen from scrap metal yards?
Are thieves targeting vacant buildings (e.g., for sale,
foreclosed, abandoned) for scrap metal theft? You should be aware of vacant
buildings in your community, and of how secure they are.
Offenders (Thieves and Sellers)†
Who are the local metal thieves and sellers?
What percentage of thieves and sellers are opportunistic, and
what percentage are professional? What percentage are drug addicts?
Where do thieves sell stolen metal, and at how many locations?
At what other locations can thieves sell stolen metal, but don't?
How easy is it to sell stolen metal?
How do thieves choose their targets?
Are there any intermediate groups buying stolen metal from
thieves and reselling it in bulk to dealers?
How many scrap metal dealers exist in your community?
What types of metal products do they accept?
Do they accept metal that they should reasonably suspect the
seller does not lawfully own (e.g., railroad track, traffic signs, beer kegs, manhole
covers, guardrails, metal with other owners' identifying marks, etc.)?
How long have the scrap yards been in business?
Are scrap metal dealerships independently owned, or part of a
larger corporate chain?
What do you know about scrap metal dealership owners and
Do scrap metal dealers require IDs or proof of ownership of metal
before buying it?
Do they keep copies of sellers' IDs?
Do (or could) they take digital photos of sellers?
How long do they save sellers' IDs?
Do they immediately pay for the metal, or pay later? Often,
delayed payments may deter addicts from stealing metal for quick cash.
Are they required to report suspicious scrap metal sellers? Are
there scrap dealers in your area who have never reported suspicious metal
sales? Does your department have someone responsible for retrieving information
on scrap-metal theft suspicion?
How do scrap metal dealers process metal they have bought?
How long do they hold the metal before moving it off their lots?
What type of metal do they prefer, and why?
What type of inventory controls do scrap yards maintain?
What type of security exists throughout the scrap yards? Are
there fencing, barbed wire, video surveillance, exterior lighting, motion
sensors, locked vehicles and areas, and good inventory controls?
Current Responses to the Problem
What local or state regulations apply to scrap metal
How are scrap metal dealerships inspected, and how are
When someone reports a scrap metal theft, is there a way to
inform surrounding scrap metal dealers to be on the lookout for specific
What percentage of reported scrap metal theft cases do police solve?
What penalties do judges impose on convicted metal thieves?
Measuring Your Effectiveness
Measurement allows you to determine how well your efforts
have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are
not producing the intended results. You should take measures of your problem before
you implement responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after
you implement them, to determine whether they have been effective. You should
take all measures in both the target area and the surrounding area. For more-detailed
guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the Problem-Solving Tools Guide titled
Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for PoliceProblem-Solvers.
The following are potentially useful measures of the
effectiveness of responses to scrap metal theft:
reduced number of scrap metal thefts (reported and unreported),
reduced financial loss from scrap metal theft,
reduced cost to replace stolen metal,
reduced number and/or severity of injuries resulting from scrap
metal theft, and
reduced number of repeat victims.