Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

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.

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.

† In the summer of 2008, AT&T worked with the San Diego County (California) Sheriff's Department, and the FBI, leading to a number of arrests of scrap metal dealers for buying stolen metal following a series of undercover operations.

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.

Incidents

  • 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?

Targets/Locations/Times

  • 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 utility properties?
  • 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? Why?
  • 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?

† Offenders will often reveal valuable information related to your local scrap-metal theft problem, such as which dealers are easy to sell to or which locations thieves are targeting, and you should thoroughly interview them to gain appropriate intelligence. For more information, see Problem-Solving Tools Guide No. 3, UsingOffender Interviews To Inform PoliceProblem-Solving.

Offenders (Buyers)

  • 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 managers?
  • 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 transactions?
  • How are scrap metal dealerships inspected, and how are regulations enforced?
  • When someone reports a scrap metal theft, is there a way to inform surrounding scrap metal dealers to be on the lookout for specific property?
  • 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.