UIndy study: Metal theft costs county $8 million a year


Pg30AMetal theft has increased dramatically in Marion County during the past few years, rising from an average of seven incidents per day in 2008 to approximately 11 per day in the 2011–13 period, according to a new study from the University of Indianapolis. Catalytic converter thefts have nearly doubled, appliances are increasingly popular targets, and the crimes seem to be concentrated in specific areas of the city, the study found. The estimated total loss was more than $16 million over the two-year study period, averaging about $690,000 per month, or more than $8 million per year. However, most metal thefts are crimes of opportunity, and property owners can prevent many of these crimes by taking simple precautions, says Kevin Whiteacre, associate professor and chair of the Department of Sociology & Criminal Justice.

With help from student research assistants Harry Dickson and Jessica Leaman, Whiteacre compiled and analyzed local crime data in collaboration with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department and the Multi-Jurisdictional Offender Strategy Team, which works to prosecute and prevent property crimes in Marion and surrounding counties. Metal theft is defined as the theft of items to be sold as scrap. The incidence seems to have risen worldwide over the past decade along with increasing demand and higher prices for various metals. Wiring, plumbing, and air conditioners are often stolen for their copper content. Automotive catalytic converters contain valuable platinum, rhodium, and palladium. Other common targets include aluminum siding, gutters, manhole covers, and storm water grates.

Among the key findings:
Catalytic converter thefts, often occurring at long-term parking facilities and car rental businesses, now represent 14 percent of all local metal thefts, up from 9 percent in 2008.

Thefts of appliances such as furnaces and refrigerators accounted for 25 percent of the total during the study period, up from 11 percent in 2008. This finding suggests that metal thieves are increasingly organized and often use trucks to haul away more and bigger loot.

Despite growing national and international acknowledgement of an increasing problem, major law enforcement agencies generally do not track metal theft as a specific category of crime, Whiteacre says, meaning there is limited understanding of the scope of the issue and how to combat it. “For all practical purposes, no one’s collecting data nationally on this huge property crime issue,” Whiteacre says. “We need to determine what types of interventions are available, which ones work, and where they would be most effective.”