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Police, recyclers unite against metal theft
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The buzzword these days among the law enforcement personnel and scrap metal recycling industry in dealing with metal thefts is "proactivity."

In Newton County's neighbor to the north, Walton County, efforts by the Sherriff's Office to reach out to local recyclers has been showing results, said WCSO deputy Sgt. Gary Couch.

After the four main local scrap centers voluntarily agreed to stop accepting the copper coils commonly found in air conditioning units at the WCSO's request, thefts of air conditioners dropped to "almost nonexistent," said Couch. He said the Sheriff's Office had seen only two air conditioner theft reports in the past two months, whereas before the agreement, they might see several a week.

But people who can show proof of ownership, like a bill of sale, can still turn in copper coils from air conditioners, he said.

"We're not trying to hurt them or put them out of business," said Couch. "We just don't want them to be buying stolen products."

The WCSO, which employs about 173 people, comparable to more than 200 employees at the Newton County Sheriff's Office, also recently purchased 12 cameras that Walton County builders and companies can use to monitor construction sites and other vulnerable places.

"Cameras are a good deterrent," said Couch.

Couch pointed out a nearby industrial manufacturing site where thieves had assumed the metal canisters strewn about to be easy pickings and had ravaged about 200 of them, costing the company about $200,000, until video cameras were installed and caught them red-handed.

Within the metal recycling industry, the trend is also to be more proactive instead of reactive, said Bruce Savage, vice president of communications for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a trade industry made up of more than 1,350 scrap recycling companies.

"We want to be part of the solution here," said Savage. "We're pushing our member companies to establish relationships with local law enforcement and encouraging them to require photo identification with all transactions and keep good records so that should the police need information, it's immediately available."

To that end, he said, ISRI set up an online metals theft alert system where reports of metal thefts can be disseminated to all ISRI members in a region.

Some of the initiative for being proactive comes from a desire to self-regulate rather than have increased regulations imposed from outside, said Savage.

"A lot of these regulations, which sound good on paper, when you try and institute in the real world, create more problems," said Savage. "Our attitude is to be more proactive so they don't have to resort to legislation and show how the industry can be a positive player."

ISRI members helped shape recently passed Georgia legislation that added teeth to penalties for stealing or knowingly buying stolen scrap metal, said member Chip Koplin, co-owner of Macon Iron and Paper Stock, Co.

 Senate Bill 203, passed in 2007, made it a felony, and no longer just a misdemeanor, to steal or knowingly buy stolen scrap metal in cases where the scrap is worth more than $500. In addition, victims can now claim the total amount of property damage from metal theft for restitution instead of just the value of the metal.

Koplin was one of the founders of the Macon-Middle Georgia Metal Theft Committee, an innovative, loose alliance of 35 metal recycling yards, utilities, businesses and law enforcement agencies that meet once every six weeks to exchange ideas and discuss how to avoid buying stolen metal. The meetings allow the disparate groups to make sure they're on the same page, explained Koplin. The recycling centers learn what law enforcement needs to be able to solve theft cases and how to provide a disincentive to more thefts and law enforcement learns how to make it easier for recycling centers to help law enforcement.

After the group formed in November of 2006, the area saw copper thefts drop from a high of 84 incidents in December 2006 to just eight incidents in November 2007, according to the Macon Police Department.

The group has an email list where anyone can send out alerts of stolen metals or suspicious persons. In addition, they try to alert the media when there is a major arrest of a metal thief, said Koplin. "We try to show everybody, including thieves, that Macon is serious about metal theft crimes," he said.

Before the Committee came together, the police were working on their own to solve or prevent thefts and weren't communicating with the recyclers, said Koplin. "It wasn't an adversarial relationship. It was just a communication issue."

"It's all about communication. The main thing is a positive relationship," he said.

A similar group of businesses and agencies from the Atlanta and metro-Atlanta region met last fall, but most were not from around Newton County, said Koplin.

In Newton County, according to publicly available Sheriff's Office incident reports, in the past six months, from September 2007 to February 2008, there were at least 64 reported incidents of metal theft, air conditioning or heating unit theft or persons found with suspicious or stolen metals. This total excludes reports within the City of Covington.

Though the number of incidents can be reduced, recyclers and law enforcement agreed there would probably always be some thefts as long as the price of some metals remained high.

Sgt. Gary Couch, of the Walton County Sheriff's Office, said the problem of metal thefts was driven by the bigger problem of drug addiction, particularly methamphetamines.

"It really does take the efforts between business and police to keep a handle on it," said Covington Detective Daniel Seals. "As long as thieves see this as easy money, we'll probably have to stay on top of this."