Published in Richmond Confidential | November 2012
Richmond has been picked over by thieves. A stump of a pipe, the tops of concrete floor boxes pried up from the sidewalk, a lonely hinge hanging from a roof. These remains, which RPD Captain Mark Gagan easily spots throughout the city, are evidence of scrap metal theft that has plagued the city for years.
It’s likely that a thief took the bronze pipe, the copper wires in the floor box, and the aluminum gutter held up by the hinge. He might have cashed in his loot at one of the metal recycling plants in Richmond. In his wake, he left behind darkness from a streetlight that no longer works, sheet rock that resembles Swiss cheese and probably thousands of dollars in damage.
Scrap metal theft has left city officials frustrated, and the police are trying to crack down. Calls to dispatch reporting any type of prowling or vandalism are now a priority requiring immediate response and notification to a supervisor – a process normally reserved for violent crimes.
“It is now a top priority,” said City Councilmember Corky Booze, who sits on the public safety committee and has paid close attention to the rising nuisance of scrap metal theft. “I wanted to make sure that nothing gets in the way of solving this problem.”
At the Richmond Police Department, Captain Mark Gagan showed me a series of photos from a vandalized vacant home in the Iron Triangle. Where there once was a kitchen sink is now a gaping hole, bordered by shards of ripped up counter tiles. In the bedroom, someone hacked through the wall searching for a mine of copper wires, demolishing the sheet rock and leaving the broken remains scattered on the floor. Outside of the house a white plastic bucket catches a suspicious looking yellow liquid dripping from a piece of PVC pipe – the thief had stolen the original pipes in the house, destroying the plumbing while he was at it. Neighbors finally called the police because the smell of urine became intolerable, but it’s too late for the homeowner.
“The amount of energy and the time to fix this, the house could be totaled,” Gagan said. The maddening part of scrap metal theft is that the cost of repairing the damage is usually about 10 times the reward a thief gets after cashing in his metal, Gagan said.
On average, there are 250-350 abandoned or foreclosed homes in Richmond, said Tim Higares, a code enforcement unit manager with the city. With a glut of unoccupied houses, this kind of property devastation is common.
“It’s sad,” Higares said. “You have a house which is an investment and should be an asset. You walk in and the sheet rock is ripped away. There’s no piping.”
When a property is abandoned, city code says it should be secured and maintained, meaning that vegetation is cut and all the doors and windows are either boarded up or secured by heavy-duty locks. Code enforcement officials also recommend the property be monitored. But what usually happens is a different story, Higares said. More often than not, a property is left without anything more than a locked front door, leaving it exposed to squatters, prostitutes, drugs addicts – “you name it,” Higares said – to find their way into the building and take whatever they want.
“That’s not the exception,” Higares said. “That’s the rule.”
Private property owners are not the only ones getting hammered by scrap metal theft. The City of Richmond Public Works Department has done all it can to not wave the white flag.
“This is not a new issue,” said Public Works Director Yader Bermudez. “It’s been going on for the last four years.”
Bermudez estimates that his department spends 70 percent of its time and resources addressing stolen copper wire and darkened streetlights – both resulting from scrap metal theft. At first, public works attempted to replace the wires on streetlights, never putting the system back the way it was before, Bermudez said. But the thieves just kept coming.
“Pulling the wires the next day or a couple days later,” he said.
It finally got to a point where replacing the lights was not cost effective. Bermudez estimates that it would cost about $1 million to replace all the lights that are out on the Richmond Parkway. Public works is still replacing traffic signals and lights around intersections, which are a priority for safety reasons. But the department has gotten so desperate it resorted to using tactics like placing massive boulders on top of concrete floor boxes, which hold the wires.
“It has been extremely frustrating,” Bermudez said. “It’s a lot of money that we lost. It’s money that we could be doing a lot of other improvements with.”
Gagan rose from his desk and asked me to follow him across the department. As he walked he pointed to light fixtures and tapped on the aluminum framing of the cubicles. If a thief looking for scrap metal broke into an office building with cubicles, the aluminum would be an obvious target, he said.
We stopped at a poster titled “Metal Theft Suspects”, with seven rows of mug shots. Scrap metal theft is a desperate crime, Gagan said, and most of its perpetrators are motivated by a drug addiction. Most scrap metal thieves are unskilled and sometimes homeless.
Catching a scrap metal thief is not easy. When Richmond police do make arrests, it’s usually because a neighbor or citizen calls in suspicious behavior. That only happens when witnesses understand and identify what they’re seeing, Gagan said. A lot of thieves will employ theatrics to help their crime, placing orange cones around the property and driving up in a white van. Often, they’ll look like contractors. It’s only if a witness knows the history of their neighbors property that they make a decision to call the police or not.
But stopping scrap metal theft is not just about the perpetrators. It’s a three-fold tactic, Gagan said. Properties must be better secured. And the metal recycling plants in Richmond – which are “making this a very lucrative business” – must be held accountable.
With that, Gagan suggested we drive to the metal recycling yards.
“It’s not the open air carnival it used to be,” Gagan said as he pulled his squad car into the metal recycling yard operated by Sims Metal Management. According to a report written by Gagan, Sims Metal in Redwood City and San Francisco were cited in 2011 for numerous violations, resulting in the company establishing protocols for receiving metals. The District Attorney operated a sting operation here at the Richmond site earlier in the fall to ensure that the metal recycling yard was following those rules and not receiving stolen properties. Unlike a stolen car or computer – which have a VIN or a serial number attached – stolen wire has no identification and is difficult to track. Some commercial companies, like PG&E, have started to print their company’s logo on their metals. A metal recycling business should be checking for that identification and paying in checks, not cash, Gagan said.
Textured mountains of wires, poles and sheets rose beyond the barbed-wire fence. Crashing sounds erupted from a tractor’s green claw, which was sifting through the piles of scrap metal. Black birds flew above in the gray sky and a procession of industrial trucks, passenger vans and sedans steadily drove in and out of the yard.
There’s a fine line between a man picking up trash to recycle and someone who is stealing copper wire from private residences and public infrastructure, Gagan said.
On our way to the Sims, Gagan pulled his car up next to a man pushing a shopping cart through a deserted parking lot. The cart was empty except for a few aluminum cans. Later, when Gagan drove to Action Metal Recycling in North Richmond, he pointed out another man who was pushing a wheelbarrow – this time the man was carrying a radiator.
The police can’t just nab someone carrying aluminum, copper or brass. Even if they stopped a suspect a block away from a vandalized house, they would not be able to prove his crime, Gagan said. So the police are relying on witnesses to call in scrap metal theft while it’s in action.
Scrap metal theft is directly related to a global international market. According to a 2010 U.S. Department of Justice report, scrap metals became the second largest American export to China behind electronics. The report says that the United States exported 18 million tons of scrap metal to developing nations in 2007. It also stated that international demand has exceeded supply since 2003, “causing new financial opportunities for scrap metal thieves.”
“The rise in scrap metal theft is driven by offenders’ recognition that ample metal supplies remain unguarded,” the report states, “and that the price of return remains historically high based on heavy international demand.”
Scrap metal theft is present in any city around the globe. But Gagan said it’s so pronounced in Richmond because there are several metal recycling centers located throughout the city. And Richmond has a port – linking it directly to the global market.
“Our officers deal with scrap metal theft every single day,” Gagan said at a recent public safety committee meeting. But approaching theft from three angles – educating the public to identify scrap theft and secure abandoned properties, prioritizing calls of vandalism so officers can stop the crime and regulating metal recycling plants so they follow protocol – city officials say they’re optimistic they can turn the trend around.
“We are not playing anymore,” Booze said. Metal thieves “will be tracked. They will be identified. And they will understand that it won’t be just a slap on the wrist.”