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Metal Theft: A Rarely-Talked About Problem with a Big Price

More than half the states enacted laws to combat metal theft last year, but there’s little analysis of which legislative policies actually work.

The high price of scrap metals has led to an increase in thefts.
Metal theft has been a frustrating challenge for businesses and law enforcement alike, due to the costly damage thieves may cause even when stealing relatively small amounts of it. In an oft-repeated statistic by the Department of Energy, stealing $100 worth of copper can often cause $5,000 worth of damage. It’s no surprise then that the problem costs businesses an estimated $1 billion annually, according to the agency.

With that much at stake, lawmakers have been busy enacting a slew of legislation designed to crack down on metal theft. Indeed, 49 states already have laws on the books that address the crime. But such regulations are still on the rise, says Jocelyn Durkay, a researcher with the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 2013 alone, at least 28 states enacted 39 laws specifically targeted toward combating metal theft. Those laws seek to codify new types of crimes related to the theft, require special licenses for scrap dealers, mandate that dealers more thoroughly document their transactions, and establish databases to help law enforcement track stolen metal.

It’s unclear, however, whether the big push for metal theft laws is actually putting a dent in the crime. A 2013 report from the National Insurance Crime Bureau reveals the rapid pace at which metal theft is growing. From 2010 through the end of 2012, nearly 34,000 insurance claims had been submitted for stolen copper. That was up 36 percent from the three-year period that ended in 2011.

Danielle Waterfield, assistant counsel and director of government relations at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, says it’s time for states to reconsider their approach. “There’s not a lack of bills out there,” she says. “The solution that’s going to show results is when the stakeholders come together and figure out how each stakeholder can contribute.” Waterfield also says that with so many metal theft laws on the books, a more rigorous analysis of what works and what doesn’t should be conducted. There appears to have been no statistical analysis of how different legislative strategies impact metal theft rates. Her organization is working with the Council of State Governments to determine exactly that.

Another approach that would likely do more to stem the problem would be increasing resources for law enforcement. Police “don’t have the resources and manpower to deal with what’s traditionally been considered a low-level property crime,” Waterfield says. And a growing number of state voices are echoing her concern as well. Last year California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have required scrap dealers to stop paying in cash and only use checks in order to create a paper trail. In his veto, Brown said there were enough laws already, and what’s needed is greater enforcement.

Roger Goodman, a state representative from Washington, sponsored legislation enacted in 2013 that’s designed to beat metal theft through licensing requirements and other reforms. He says the law was in response to a metal theft situation so severe in his state that church bells and even pieces of an airport runway were stolen. What will make the biggest difference, Goodman says, is more resources for prosecutors working to put metal thieves away. He’s hoping to establish a special fund to pay for multicounty prosecutors dedicated solely to metal theft cases. “Law enforcement,” he says, “won’t take the time to arrest if [prosecutors] won’t do anything.”

Communications manager for the Texas Medical Center Health Policy Institute and former Governing staff writer
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