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Precious Metal Theft

The easiest Breaking & Entering arrest I ever made was when a thief walked into a commercial job site and systematically dismantled copper tubing at one end while the plumbers put it in place on the other side. They called 911, I responded, and the crook walked into my arms as he exited the job site carrying about eight foot worth of copper tubes. The value of the copper was about $300 back then and I was surprised of how steep the cost. What I thought was an isolated incident surely wasn't.

A few short years later, my agency and surrounding departments were inundated with dozens of calls where vehicle Catalytic Converters (the anti-pollution device on your car) were stolen by the dozens within minutes from a local shopping plaza. The precious metals contained with the catalytic converters, valued at around $150 per car, meant that one skilled thief could, within the span of a half hour, hit one parking lot and make off with at least $1500 worth of stolen car parts. Think of it as the crook making in thirty minutes what it takes you to earn in one to two weeks salary depending on where you serve. Add the mounting housing foreclosure factor over the two years and the $10,000 to $15,000 worth of copper that thieves could make off with by hitting a single vacant house and quickly you can see the problem of theft of precious metals as being systemic and devastating nationally (see Vacant homes targeted by copper thieves video linked below).

Time Limitations

If you are simply behind the curve of criminal events by responding to calls after the incident and making no attempts to interdict offenders then arguably you serving as nothing more than a secretary with a gun. It took several officers an entire day to process the location where the Catalytic Converters were stolen. How long does it take you to process a home where a burglary has taken place, to include dusting for latent prints, taking photos, obtaining statements, securing what property is left, generating your report, and then investigative follow-up? At the rate that offenders can commit their crimes, and their motivation is high due to profitability, and the time it takes for us to document the event means that this is a never-ending battle. There has to be a better way.

Guide No. 58

Enter the Center for Problem Oriented Policing POP Guide - Responses to the Problem of Scrap Metal Theft  by Brandon R. Kooi. This publication takes the guesswork out of the how to deal with problem of thieves stealing previous metals. It's full of background information, problem analysis, crime prevention suggestions (to include pictures), and a strategy matrix that highlights how cops should integrate methods to catch the thieves.

I found of particular interest for detectives that the guide identifies a web-based neighborhood watch for the scrap metal industry found at It's another method of electronic networking between policing agencies and the industry that can assist in the identification of suspects. Also, the Summary of Responses findings at the end of the document saves you time and effort by telling you which strategies have been used and what their likelihood of success is before you attempt it. Other considerations are listed too for identified responses, such as partnering with local corporate security departments for force multiplication or risks to alienating the public due to the image of surveillance activities.

Smarter Not Harder

We simply need to do better by being smarter and not wasting efforts by trying to reinvent the wheel. The guide serves as a shortcut to increasing our probably of investigative success. Doing nothing or just responding to incidents without any motivation of seriously impacting the problem is not acceptable. The policing profession really has to do more with less in this era of falling tax revenues and when coupled with the police union busting measures by elected officials and their misguided constituents (Oh, don't get me started here), then the reality is that there will be less cops on the beat than before.