One year after a Georgia law targeting metal thefts went into effect, such crimes have dropped drastically, according to officials at a utility company and a major recycler.
“It was not only a problem, but a severe problem bordering on epidemic,” Lee Swann, a security investigator for Georgia Transmission, said of the state’s previous metal theft problem. Georgia Transmission provides transmission service for 39 electric member corporations.
The Richmond County Sheriff’s Office does not keep statistics on metal crimes, but Investigator Kendall Brown said he has seen a decrease in caseload since the law changed. Other agencies across the state are reporting similar effects.
The law went into effect July 1, 2012. One of the new mandates requires that recycling companies take photos or videos of every purchase, the sellers, vehicle tag numbers and driver’s licenses, and keep them on file for two years. This means that even after the stolen metal has left a recycling yard, a trail of documents is available to lead investigators back to the original sellers.
The photos and videos have been one of the main contributors to change, but a host of other new requirements were also included in the law.
“All of the stakeholders, including the recyclers, worked very hard to put this bill together,” said Frank Goulding, the vice president of marketing for Newell Recycling. “What we felt when the bill was complete was that we had a very solid piece of legislation.”
Newell, which has 10 Georgia locations, including one in Augusta, has seen a reduction in cases since the bill went into effect.
Locally, metal thefts had showed continual increases since 2011. The Richmond County Sheriff’s Office reinstated a full-time metal thefts investigator, making Brown the only law enforcement investigator in the state with a full-time metal theft beat.
Since the legislation passed in 2012, Georgia has seen a 98 percent reduction in air-conditioning thefts, according to Brown, who also coordinates the CSRA Metal Theft Task Force, which includes 65 agencies.
Now the only people allowed to sell air-conditioning coils to recyclers are state-licensed contractors, businesses and those with receipts to prove a new unit is replacing the old one.
“The overall deterrence is if you can’t sell it, you won’t steal it,” Brown said.
For Georgia Transmission, the theft of metal posed an electrocution risk for workers. Swann said employees had several close calls when someone stole wire from substations and transmission structures.
In 2011, the utility reported 127 theft incidents. The number began dropping in 2012 because of the new law, and the year ended with 83 incidents.
“We aren’t seeing the intensity we were seeing,” said Swann, a retired law enforcement officer who investigates all copper thefts for Georgia Transmission.
The company, which builds and maintains high-voltage transmission lines and substations, saw a 43 percent decrease in thefts in the first four months of this year over the same period last year.
Metal thefts are still occurring in Richmond County, and Brown has about 10 cases every month. However, the focus has mostly shifted to thefts of automotive batteries, cars and catalytic converters, he said.
By now Brown knows the faces of the recyclers and of suspicious sellers.
Sellers who come in with dirty knees and hands and tools in their vehicles are always suspicious. He said most of the people try to sell immediately after the theft.
“If they need money, they want it right away,” Brown said.
Investigators agree that substance abuse is a large driver. Swann said all his arrests involve substance abuse of some kind, but most involve methamphetamine.
“I have yet to make an arrest on anyone who isn’t into drugs,” he said.
Recyclers and law enforcement are pleased with the overall effect of the law, but they’re still waiting on the GBI database that was promised. The database will share the recyclers’ documentation from sales with all law enforcement agencies, but the program needs funding.
In the meantime, investigators have to request the information from recyclers.