Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Penalty increases for scrap metal thieves a bust; better police tactics needed more than harsher penalties

Increasing penalties for stealing small amounts of copper and other industrial metals have done nothing to slow the rate of thefts in the Merroplex, reported the Dallas News ("Dallas detectives battle metal thieves," May 31):

From 2005 to 2007, metal thefts in Dallas jumped 227 percent.

In 2006, Dallas police reported 2,415 metal thefts. In 2007, they reported 3,339. And through the first three months of this year, police reported 691.

Meanwhile, thefts across North Texas cost Oncor Electric Delivery about $1 million in losses last year, company spokeswoman Carol Peters said. Various deterrents, including increased surveillance, seem to have slowed the crimes, though the company still estimates $250,000 in theft-related losses so far this year, she said.

"It continues to be an issue," Ms. Peters said. "Obviously there can be an outage involved. It's a huge safety issue. The perpetrator is risking his or her life stealing wire if it's live." ...

While the market price of copper fluctuates on a daily basis, it has risen almost 18 percent since the beginning of the year, closing at $3.61 per pound Friday. The loads sellers bring to recycling yards vary from a few pounds to a few hundred pounds of metals, police say.

For the victims, the cost can be more devastating than the price it yields for thieves.

John Davis, a Lake Highlands dentist, said he has lost five air-conditioning units in the last six months.

"Everything short of having an armed guard in the back alley is not working," Dr. Davis said. He estimates that he has spent $15,000 to $20,000 to replace the units and two stolen security cameras, as well as to add welded cages around the remaining air-conditioning units.

In 2007, House Criminal Jurisprudence Chairman Aaron Peña pushed through legislation to make theft of any amount of copper, aluminum or bronze a state jail felony, regardless of the value of the stolen property. Peña argued the epidemic of metal thefts constituted a special case, and the so-called "enhancement" (a legislative euphemism for criminal penalty increases) would deter thieves by making them "think twice" about the consequences.

Now we know that theory doesn't work. Most metal thieves are homeless people, addicts, and others with little to lose. As I've wondered previously, "If someone is a) uneducated, and b) willing to risk their lives, why would legislators think jacking up the penalty to a felony (as opposed to more vigorously enforcing misdemeanor statutes), would do anything but give them 'three hots and a cot' for a longer period on the taxpayers' dime?"

Rather than help solve the problem of metal thievery, more thefts occurred since the new statute was enacted. IMO that's because the idea behind the law was based on a flawed economic model: That penalties are a "cost" for offenders, so raising it reduces crime by raising the price paid for committing it. When you're homeless and so desperate you're willing to risk electrocution to steal a $50 worth of copper wire, that economic model collapses. No can provide incentives strong enough to counter starvation.

This is a circumstance where changing tactics is more important than changing laws. What's really needed is better enforcement against the handful of recycling businesses that purchase scrap metal, a much more accessible target that's more likely to comply with the laws if they're enforced. Earlier this year, a comment at the User Forum on the DA Association's website described a strategy used in Houston that seems more likely to yield results:
Undercover police officers would go to scrap metal dealers posing as employees of an air conditioning company. They told the operators of several scrap metal places that they wanted to sell the coils from air conditioning units. But, they would ask if the dealer ever did business with the company that hey "purportedly" worked for. They didn't want someone from their company or their boss to show up while they were trying to sell the coils. They made it clear that they were stealing the coils from their employer and wanted cash for the copper in the coils. All of this was recorded. They wouldn''t arrest anyone at that time but just sell them the coils. After they visited several places on more than one occasion each selling "stolen" coils to them the officers then met with me and I drafted search warrants of each location for documentation of the purchase of the items. Texas law requires that they document the purchases. In every purchase, the owners of the scrap metal dealership would fill out a receipt, as required by Texas law, but they put in phony names and dates, which we could substantiate from the taped recordings of the purchase.
If recyclers won't purchase stolen scrap metal, thieves will stop stealing it. Simple as that. There was no sense in increasing penalties for metal thieves, and doing so hasn't reduced crime nearly as much as it would just to enforce existing, un-"enhanced" laws against scrap metal dealers.


Anonymous said...

But we want scrap metal dealers to take junk. Recycling, you know.

At some point, repeated thieves need to have the book thrown at them. Like 10 years, at least.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

We want them to take junk, not stolen contraband! That's not "recycling," it's "fencing"!

There would be no repeat thieves if a handful of recyclers weren't flouting the law.

Anonymous said...

Quick fix: Repeal the "man-trap" laws.

Just remove the grounding wire and electrocute the jackarses.

Come on! Lets see a few man-sized bug zappers!

Anonymous said...

The USA has been 'growing' its underclass(es) for quite some years now. The Middle Class was always largely a well-paid Lower Class (behavior-wise), and The Game has been progressively rigged to force a Go Up Or Go Down choice on formerly comfy middle-class folk.

Many have Gone Down. The ranks of the low-class expand constantly these days. There are consequences to this process.

It used to be, the lower-class kept their heads down & stayed outa the way. The Middle Class was the Mainstream's Sargent at Arms.

Now, our middle-class is often demoralized, and in many situations the field has been yielded to the lower-class.

That makes it easier for metal-thieves to go about their work, with less concern that passers-by will report their activity.

In numerous corners of the globe, a major damper on efforts to install electrification is that any unguarded wire or metal is scavenged & stolen by the impoverished population, sometimes within minutes after the construction crews load up their gear and drive around the corner. Literally, the whole community turns out en-mass to rip out physical infrastructure and cart if off to scrap-buyers.

We are seeing the introductory versions of this condition/situation, here in the USA, now.

I could be wrong on this, or on the details of it, but I understand that pulling a felony loses one the right to vote (and bear arms). To the extent this is true, increasing the rate of felony in the lower classes is a Good Thing ... for those who wish to manage politics & government with a minimum of ballot-feedback from the more-trampled sectors of society.

Is this a possibility, or am I perhaps over-reacting here?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Clayton, I tend to agree with you regards the political ostracism involved in felony voter disenfranchisement of any sort, but especially as it has to do with illicit drugs.

In a very real sense, what has been happening in this country has been the 'profiling' of political opposition for eventual emasculation.

After all, if the majority of those arrested are members of racially identifiable minorities, and minorities most often vote Democratic, then if you belong to the Investor Class, which is predominantly Republican, well...what else would you call it?

In an aside, when you stop to think about it, it shows how low the entire American social order has been brought; Americans scratching for scrap metal like the wretched denizens of some Third World pest-hole. Jeez. I never would have thought it would get this bad...

Anonymous said...

Way to go and label racial minorities as the "criminal class."


Anonymous said...

Anon 03:03, it's not my idea.

Look up the origins of such concepts as 'social Darwinism' at the beginning of the last century and you find an almost Calvinistic (and some cases, actually blatantly so) of the industrial 'elite' of this country, seeing themselves as the rightful Elect and residing at the pinnacle of the socio-economic order as arriving there because of a belief in their innate superiority.

This is also where the political aspects of eugenics come into play. Both such concepts played a huge part in the formulation of our laws back then, criminalizing what were once nuisances in order to justify the kind of 'social engineering' of that elite via the use of government to achieve their dubious goals. This was the very ugly side of what is commonly referred to as the 'Progressive Era'.

The Working Class back then was viewed by that Elite as some sort of 'rough beast' (and was often referred to as such in writings forwarded by that self-proclaimed Elite) who were badly in need of both herd thinning and corralling.

They were seen, largely because of their different ethnic and racial compositions, to be inherently incapable of assimilation into WASP society and thus were the 'barbarians within the gates' who required constant 'supervision' (translation: repression) lest they run rampant and destroy White civlization'.

Please don't try to tell me that that attitude isn't mirrored on the part of certain political institutions today, seeing as those institutions got their start courtesy of these long-forgotten attitudes underpinning the laws upon which those institutions were founded. Institutions such as the DrugWar, whose main targets, then as now, were minorities.

Back then, the proponents of this policy were quite up front about their targets. Nowadays, courtesy of it not being considered to be terribly 'politic' to be so open with racial bigotry, we use more genteel rationales (gotta save the chil-drunnnnnn!) but the targets are still those whose skin coloration is several shades darker than Wonder Bread. Some things never change.

Anonymous said...

Sorry; didn't edit properly. I meant to say '...and almost Calvinistic attitude...' on the part of the Robber Barons back then, who saw the Great Unwashed as being equivalent to those barbarians of old. Look there for the origins of the "minority = criminal" viewpoint that was openly extolled by supposed 'Real Americans' like John D. Rockefeller back then.

Such attitudes underpinning the laws led to policies that sought to 'scientifically' enshrine bigotry into law. Thus were born the eugenically-based laws of this country, of which the DrugWar shares center-stage. Thus was also born a classic 'self-fulfilling prophecy' of 'minority = criminal' from which society is still suffering today, as reflected in prison racial composition.

The racially bigoted origins of these laws are long forgotten, like leftover munitions from a war that took place a century ago, but they are still causing casualties today.

Anonymous said...

Why is the answer to all crime... to increase sentencing penalties? Maybe we should look at the heart of the problem. Maybe make it harder to recycle this stuff, background checks, photo ID, etc. Maybe we should look at the real reason people are stealing this stuff in the first place...and maybe try to solve that problem instead of costing us $30,000 a year to lock them away!