By Sgt. Andy Ezzo
In 2008, Ohio lawmakers revised the state’s metal theft law. The state began requiring recyclers to check each scrap seller’s photo ID and keep records of the company’s daily transactions. It put additional regulations on “spe-cial-purchase articles” such as guardrails, sewer lids, beer kegs, and street signs to ensure they were coming from an authorized seller.
Three years later, it was clear the new requirements were not working. According to statistics from the National Insurance Crime Bureau, Ohio led the nation in reports of metal theft in 2011. Legislators determined something more needed to be done. The state organized a consortium of lawmakers, law enforcement, and scrap recyclers (including ISRI members) to propose a new approach. After 18 months of the consortium reviewing issues, comparing notes, and proposing new language for a bill, the Ohio legislature passed a new law that was somewhat stricter for recyclers but much friendlier to law enforcement.
The 2012 law required the Ohio Department of Public Safety to develop a database, accessible to law enforce-ment, into which recyclers must report all scrap purchases and sales within 24 hours; to develop a “Do Not Buy” list scrapyards must check before every scrap purchase; and to create a state department with a liaison, analyst, and other resources to help scrapyards and law enforcement combat metal theft. In addition to uploading transaction data and checking the DNB list, scrapyards have to register with the state and pay an annual fee, photograph scrap sellers, and record their license plate number if they arrive in a vehicle.
The law’s requirements phased in gradually, with the registration requirement taking effect in 2013, the daily transaction reporting in 2014, and the DNB list in 2015. The legislators realized these new laws could put some le-gitimate “mom-and-pop” scrapyards out of business due to the cost of equipment and annual registration—but they also realized that some of the mom-and-pop shops were not in compliance with the existing laws.
Reports of metal theft in Ohio have fallen significantly since the new law took effect, according to NICB data. Between 2014 and 2015, thefts fell 23 percent; between 2015 and 2016, they fell an additional 47 percent. Overall, reports of metal theft in the state fell 60 percent from 2014 to 2018.
After the new law took effect, Cleveland and Cuyahoga County officials organized an Environmental Crimes Task Force with members from city and county departments responsible for environmental issues and detectives from the Cleveland Division of Police and the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department. All the task force members work together, but the detectives are tasked with enforcing the law.
As the officer in charge of the task force, my role is to enforce the law, train law enforcement throughout the state, and educate and form relationships with recyclers. To provide that education and relationship-building, I and the other task force detectives conduct seminars and one-on-one training in which we break down the various elements of the law and inform recyclers of their responsibilities. We also provide our contact information and offer our assistance all hours of the day and night. At the same time, we inform recyclers that we’ll be checking on them, conducting in-spections and reviewing their compliance to make sure everyone is doing the right thing and working on a level playing field.
My primary goal is to catch metal thieves. During our seminars and training, I ask recyclers to call me whenever they believe property they’re buying might be stolen. I guarantee they will be reimbursed once I locate a victim. If I can’t locate a victim, the property is theirs to process and sell, but I ask them to first give me a chance to investigate.
It has taken several years to get this outreach effort off the ground. The task force held its first seminar in early 2014. Shortly thereafter, we conducted an undercover operation using a confidential informant who was on the DNB list and caught two scrapyards that were continuing old practices and not following the law. These companies and owners were indicted; the companies later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and paid fines, and the charges against the owners were dropped.
We did not receive many calls from recyclers after that first seminar, which I think was due to a lack of under-standing and our not yet having strong relationships with the recyclers. The scrap dealers were not sure what material we wanted them to report and when they should call or not call us. From 2014 to 2016, we conducted just over 30 scrap theft investigations.
We held our second scrap dealer seminar in 2017, inviting scrapyards from Cuyahoga County as well as the city of Cleveland. Some of the scrap dealers who attended had been at the first seminar and others had not. This seminar created a better understanding of our goals and produced more relationships with the dealers, who started to reach out to us when they suspected they were being offered stolen metal. Their calls resulted in over 40 investigations that year. We saw the suspected stolen property bulletins we were sending and ISRI’s Scrap Theft Alert bulletins start to produce results.
Earlier this year we held our third scrap dealer seminar, extending the invitation to scrapyards in adjoining counties as well as Cleveland and Cuyahoga County. In both the second and third seminars, we were able to talk about more cases we had investigated and show more examples, which helped the dealers understand our goals. Mary Hlepas from Imperial Aluminum (Minerva, Ohio) represented ISRI and the Northern Ohio Chapter at the seminar, telling at-tendees about ISRI’s efforts to prevent scrap theft and work with law enforcement.
The third seminar was on a Friday, and that weekend my phone never stopped ringing. Scrap dealers called me to report suspected stolen property, to ask questions about the law, and more. We have conducted over 80 investi-gations as of mid-November, and calls continue to come in.
As effective as the new metal theft law has been, we are also discussing with scrap dealers how we might improve it. Our goal is to close some loopholes to make the laws stricter on the thieves, provide better assistance to scrap dealers, and ensure we’ve created a level playing field for all scrap recyclers. There seems to be consensus around having scrap dealers take photos of scrap sellers’ license plates and for the state to add certain materials—such as vehicle and heavy-equipment batteries—to the list of special-purchase articles. We’d like scrapyards to get a tax credit for the purchase of equipment they need to comply with the law. And we’d like to implement a provision, similar to one that applies to pawnshops, that requires the metal theft victim to reimburse a scrapyard that unknowingly purchases stolen material. (The victim can request restitution from the perpetrator in the criminal case.) That reim-bursement creates another incentive for scrapyards to call the police to report material they suspect is stolen. We hope to again pull together the consortium of lawmakers, scrap recyclers, law enforcement agencies, and industries heavily affected by metal thefts to propose new legislative language to achieve these goals.
Attacking the root causes of theft
Ohio is one of the states hit hardest by the opioid epidemic. In 2016, the state recorded 3,613 deaths due to opioids. This equates to 32.9 deaths per 100,000 people, a rate surpassed only by New Hampshire and West Virginia. The national average is 13.3 opioid deaths per 100,000 people. As I and other law enforcement officers can attest, the opioid epidemic and metal theft go hand in hand. I’ve interviewed more than 100 metal thieves who were addicted to heroin or other opioids. These addicts will take extreme measures to feed their addiction, sometimes losing their lives in doing so. Thus, the strategies and procedures the Environmental Crimes Task Force has put in place not only battle scrap theft, but the opioid epidemic as well. Our success in building relationships with scrap dealers and getting reports of suspected stolen material can help us take away addicts’ source of money, making metal a less attractive target for theft.
We’re also looking at how we can provide assistance to addicts caught committing these crimes. We know that will take money. A first step for us is collecting the data that tie metal theft to opioid addiction so we can present it to the legislators. It is very important for them to understand that we cannot fix one problem without fixing the other.
Ohio is attacking the opioid problem on other fronts as well. The state, Cuyahoga County, Summit County, Cleveland, and over 250 other municipalities and other entities in the state have filed a lawsuit in federal court against pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors—as have 26 other states. A settlement of the case could dismantle the distribution system and provide the resources to attack this epidemic and help the individuals who have been hurt by this horrific plague.
The Environmental Crimes Task Force’s efforts—and its relationships with scrap recyclers—are one small part of this multifaceted approach to the opioid epidemic. Together, we have the opportunity to do something not just good, but great.
Sgt. Andy Ezzo, a 24-year veteran of the Cleveland Police Department, has been the officer in charge of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County’s Environmental Crimes Task Force since its founding in 2013.
In 2011, Ohio led the nation in metal theft. The leader of the Cleveland area’s Environmental Crimes Task Force tells how law enforcement, lawmakers, and scrap recyclers have worked together to turn things around—and what more needs to be done.