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Software is key to helping Ohio police track metal thieves

The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A Columbus city ordinance aimed at curbing metal thefts took effect in late August, but, as has been reported recently, the crooks appear undeterred.
A key provision of the new regulations for scrap-metal yards -- electronic reporting of purchases -- has yet to go into effect, however. Police need this capability to scrutinize scrap-metal transactions.

Prices for building materials, including metals, are at an all-time high, as world up-and-comers, including India and China, engage in a construction boom. People trying to make a quick buck have made off with manhole covers, catalytic converters, downspouts, aluminum siding, bleachers at athletic fields and metal tiles on church roofs.

In December, thefts were averaging $11,000 per day. If that average held year-round, the annual loss would top $4 million.

These thefts are annoying, expensive and dangerous -- even fatal in some cases. Houses have exploded when their gas pipes have been taken. People have been electrocuted while stealing wiring.

The Columbus ordinance has worked in a few ways: Theft of catalytic converters is down, and Columbus police credit a provision that allows the sale to scraps yards of only one converter at a time. Police and yard owners have begun communicating regularly. Nineteen yards now are licensed, and they are becoming accustomed to keeping better records.

Under the ordinance, police have been able to make a few arrests for metal theft using the records they receive daily from yards. But those records on paper -- up to 1,500 on busy days -- are cumbersome for officers to wade through to connect the dots.

The city has yet to choose a software company to create an electronic-reporting system. But here's the trouble: The working group drawing up the request-for-proposal papers had to start from scratch, with no model to follow.

Should the program be Web-based or a police database to which dealers upload? Who should have access to it? Should it include the dollar amounts paid to sellers, which scrap yards regard as proprietary information? Can software venders deliver what the city wants from this program?

The members of the working group even had to develop a common terminology describing the metal objects that thieves might try to sell to make this system searchable by police. For example, the yards and police need to agree to call a downspout a downspout.

The city expects to request proposals from software designers within six weeks.

Columbus' ultimate success or failure is being watched closely by cities and states all over the country that are considering similar laws.

The situation also shows that curbing metal thefts ultimately will require monitoring scrap-metal yards statewide, rather than having regulations in some areas but not others. Metal thieves relocate to where they can get away with their crime. That shouldn't be anywhere in Ohio.

Copyright 2008 The Columbus Dispatch

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