They’ve ripped off wiring, plundered drain covers, heisted guardrails, even swiped cemetery urns.
Metal thieves – the brazen crooks who often prey on public property at taxpayers’ expense – increasingly have grabbed society’s attention, along with just about anything else they can put their hands on.
Several states – including Washington – have passed laws in recent years to crack down on those five-fingered discounters of non-ferrous scrap.
Now, a City of Tacoma measure is aimed at further tightening a regulatory grip around them.
Among other provisions, the city proposal calls for amending Tacoma’s licensing regulations for scrap-metal and recyclable-materials dealers by requiring them to affix an extra-small license plate to their vehicles. The council is expected to vote on the measure at its regular meeting Tuesday.
“This is something that’s going to really give us a great tool for working toward hopefully stopping metal theft in our community,” said Councilman Marty Campbell, who spearheaded the proposal. “At the very least, it should help reduce it.”
Tacoma has licensed scrap metal dealers since 1921, but these days, such licenses involve affixing a small sticker to a vehicle’s window.
By requiring a more recognizable license plate – similar to the kind taxi cabs must display – legitimate scrap dealers can be more easily distinguished from opportunists, city officials said. The proposal does not call for an increase in licensing fees.
“A lot of these guys are driving around calling themselves scrap-metal dealers, but they’re really unlicensed thieves,” Campbell said. “With this you can just look and see if they’re licensed or not. And if they’re not, police can immediately take action.”
If approved, the measure will give police officers another crime-fighting tool, Lt. Rob Jepson said.
“So if we see a truck driving down the road and it has a bunch of metal on it, not having that license will give us the authority to pull it over,” he said.
The proposal also would amend a transaction-reporting requirement for Tacoma’s licensed scrap-metal recyclers to reduce paperwork and help police more easily locate potential metal thieves.
“There’s language that basically allows us to negotiate with police for the kinds of data they really want and need to catch the bad guys,” said Louise Bray, government affairs manager for Schnitzer Steel.
A companion proposal would require some businesses that buy or consign used goods and then sell them to meet the same kinds of regulatory standards any licensed pawnshop must meet – including routinely reporting transactions to police and holding merchandise for at least 30 days.
“This levels the playing field by holding secondhand goods businesses to the same standards as pawnshops,” Campbell said.
Representatives for Schnitzer and Tacoma’s three other big metal recyclers – Simon Metals, Tacoma Metals and Calbag Metals – worked closely with Campbell and Councilwoman Victoria Woodards over eight months to refine the scrap-metal measure.
Scrap-metal theft has become a widespread problem throughout Washington, law enforcement officials have said, as metal bandits have taken advantage of a lucrative market by feasting on accessible copper, aluminum and other recyclable metals.
“It’s a huge problem and a statewide problem,” Jepson said. “We’re talking thousands and thousands of dollars.”
In Western Washington, thieves frequently target copper wiring in streetlights and other fixtures.
“On the other side of the mountains,” Jepson added, “farmers are waking up to find their sprinkler systems, pipes and gutters gone.”
Late last year, thieves broke into the mechanical room on Tacoma’s Murray Morgan Bridge, pillaging copper wiring from control panels used to raise and lower the span. City officials estimated losses of up to $300,000.
Tacoma Public Utilities estimates that wire thieves, who typically target substations and utility poles, have caused about $300,000 in losses and damage in the past two years. TPU now experiences about one theft per week, but the frequency can average about five per week when copper prices are high.
“Most thieves who steal copper get about $30 to $50 worth, and it costs Tacoma Power about $2,500 to repair the damage,” TPU spokeswoman Chris Gleason said in an email Friday.
Washington enacted a law in 2007 to crack down on metal theft by beefing up scrap-metal transaction-reporting requirements and other regulations.
“But the enforcement really hasn’t been there,” Bray said.
Meanwhile, local governments have passed measures to fill in some gaps in the law to aid local prosecution efforts, Jepson said.
“We can be as strict as we want in the City of Tacoma, but that’s not going to help us if someone can just go out somewhere in the county and sell these things without much consequence,” he added.
A task force headed by state Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, is working to address the issue from a regional perspective. The group includes lawmakers and representatives of the scrap-metal industry and law enforcement, including police and businesses from Tacoma.
One idea being considered is creating a statewide “Do Not Sell” list that would ban convicted metal thieves from ever selling scrap metal again to any recycler in Washington.
“I am happy to see that we’ll still be at the table together and talking about a regional change,” Woodards said last week, during a first reading of the city measure. “Because that’s how we’re really going to make a difference.”