New Study Highlights a Need for State Metal Theft Data

Jun 10, 2014

Over the past few years, reports of scrap metal theft have become common in both the local and national news. Insurance companies, law enforcement officials and industry watchdogs have called scrap metal theft—including the theft of copper, aluminum, nickel, stainless steel and scrap iron—one of the fastest-growing crimes in the United States.

State leaders have taken notice, passing a flurry of legislation meant to curb metal theft and help law enforcement find and prosecute criminals. A big chunk of that legislation focused on placing new regulations and requirements on transactions at scrap metal recycling facilities where thieves might attempt to sell their stolen goods. 

Researchers at The Council of State Governments, in collaboration with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), set out to determine if all that legislation is having an impact on metal theft rates.

We wanted to know if those laws were affecting metal theft rates or if certain kinds of legislation were more effective at stopping metal thieves. However, to begin evaluating metal theft legislation, we needed to know exactly how much theft was occurring.

After finding no existing source of compiled theft data for states, CSG researchers surveyed states and local law enforcement officials to determine if reliable statistics could be collected.

The data just isn’t there. No state is comprehensively tracking metal theft crime statistics, and while some local jurisdictions are collecting their own data, those data have a number of limitations when it comes to evaluating the impacts of state legislation.

The bottom line is that you can’t effectively evaluate what you don’t measure. States just aren’t collecting the kind of data needed to perform a rigorous analysis of how state legislation is affecting metal theft rates—one way or the other.

The study recommends that state leaders continue to discuss ways to solve the metal theft problem and that key to that discussion will be how states can begin to collect the necessary data to evaluate their policies.

Moving forward, it is unlikely data will be available in the future on a scale necessary to perform meaningful analysis unless a widespread effort is launched to create systems, at both the local, state and likely national levels to document, track and report metal theft crime uniformly and consistently.

Jennifer Burnett, CSG program manager for fiscal and economic development policy and the study’s primary author. A copy of the full report can be found on the Council of State Governments website.

Have Questions?