Sgt. John McLaughlin is the nuisance and problem properties coordinator for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. The theft of metals to sell for scrap comes under his purvue and he'll be the first to tell you... the problem is more than just a nuisance.
When you think of scrap metal thefts the first thought is of copper plumbing and gutters ripped from homes. But In recent weeks, News 4 has reported on thefts of air conditioners from a daycare and a church, and of catalytic converters cut from underneath cars. Our report featured the case of a man who was charged with unbolting heavy steel hooks from more than 500 city trash dumpsters.
Those kinds of thefts continue in spite of a new City of St. Louis law designed to make thieves think twice before selling stolen metal to dealers located in the city limits. The law went into effect last April and requires scrap dealers who pay in cash to keep meticulous records. When someone goes to a scrap yard to cash in a small amount of metal, the dealer is requited to photograph the seller, photocopy his drivers license, and record his license plate number.
Sgt. McLaughlin praised the tougher law in a News 4 Investigates report in February, 2007.
But is it doing any good?
Our check of police and court records shows in the 14 months since the law took effect, only three cases have been brought against scrap dealers. One was dismissed, one resulted in a guilty plea and a fine of only $48.50, while the most serious case is still being prosecuted.
Sgt. McLaughlin says the small number of cases don't tell the whole story.
Closing the Gap?
"We're starting to close the gap, the loopholes," he says, "where these guys can go sell these items."
"You have to start from somewhere and this ordinance will give us a chance to see how it works and if it needs to be adjusted or needs to be strengthened then we'll go forward with that."
Sgt. McLaughlin believes the new law is making an impression on scrap metal thieves as well as the dealers.
"Even the people selling these items are now aware... 'hey, you gotta have proper I.D., they're going to look at the car you're driving.' So I think that effect has been positive for us to try to curb part of these thefts."
"I think it gives us another tool to investigate these metal thefts."
And that, says Sgt. McLaughlin, is one of the most important elements of the new law. The skyrocketing value of scrap metals, due largely to growing demand in China and India, makes scrap irresistable to thieves. Sgt. McLaughlin says the stricter identification requirements in the new law give police additional clues to help track down thieves.
Call it baby steps if you want. But after hearing Sgt. McLaughlin speak, one might recall the old saying that each journey starts with a single step.
He thinks police and scrap dealers -- working together -- are making a difference.
"It's been a learning experience for both the police department and the dealers" says McLaughlin.
Missouri and Illinois Follow Suit
Sgt. McLaughlin is especially pleased that after St. Louis City passed its tougher law on the purchase of scrap metals, the states of Missouri and Illinois passed similar versions. With stronger laws all over the metro area, metal thieves should find fewer places to sell their stolen goods.
He admits to feeling a certain sense of pride in helping to develop the city ordinance, while passing kudos on to St. Louis alderwoman Lyda Krewson, who was the lead sponsor of the bill.