The e-newsletter of the COPS Office | Volume 1 | Issue 9 | September 2008

Mortgage Crisis Is Affecting Local Property Crime

Vacancies, Theft, and Property Damage

Homebuyers eager for deals are not alone in looking to cash in on opportunities created by the nation’s mortgage crisis. Criminals, too, are eyeing foreclosed homes with the intent to steal, vandalize, and otherwise damage neglected properties and their surrounding neighborhoods.

A booming commodities market, combined with worsening real estate conditions, is creating an upswing in stolen copper piping and other products. Copper, which in 2004 sold for $.80 a pound, is now selling for more than $3.50 a pound, as developing countries such as China and India increase demand for the metal. In Cleveland Heights, Ohio, one copper theft ring copied foreclosure lists from the local sheriff’s department and another used computer generated lists from HUD to identify targets.1

In addition to copper, criminals are also stripping houses of air conditioning units, appliances, and even hardwood flooring. Theft, furthermore, is just one of many crime and public nuisance problems created by a glut of empty houses. Besides being inviting to squatters, graffiti, drug-dealing, and prostitution, these properties are being used to host teenage rave parties and marijuana-growing operations. The property damage incurred by these types of trespassing, along with neglect, weather damage, and vermin, is often significant.

Costs to the Community

Frequently neglected by banks or other nonresident owners, these problem properties drive down property values and reduce tax revenues for the community. Quality of life also suffers, with blight disproportionately affecting the low-income and minority neighborhoods, which are often hardest hit by foreclosures.

According to a study focusing on the City of Chicago, managing vacant properties consumes costly resources across many agencies.2 The courts, police, fire, and streets and sanitation departments are shouldering much of the burden of responding to problem properties. A routine police visit costs the department an average of $90 while an incident involving an arrest can cost $1,080. The direct costs of selling an unsecured, foreclosed property can cost the municipality approximately $5,358 to $13,324.

Some municipalities are introducing fines to help recoup costs from owners of abandoned properties. Others are increasing trespassing fines to deter illegal parties.

A Local Approach to Combating Metal Theft

As the numbers of metal and construction thefts began to rise, the Marion County (Florida) Sheriff’s Office decided to take a unique approach to handling its local problem. The Community Policing Bureau formed a partnership with the two largest recyclers in the county that has served as a model for the entire state.

Detective Gary Bush, who serves as the construction liaison for Marion County Sheriff’s Office, researches daily theft reports and sends the information to local recyclers. Ocala Recycling and Commercial Metals, the two largest recyclers in the county, instruct their employees to record driver’s license and license plate numbers of individuals who engage in suspicious transactions. Detective Bush also sends a bimonthly newsletter to recyclers, builders, and contractors about property theft trends and coordinates a monthly intelligence-sharing meeting attended by 20 law enforcement agencies and businesses.

Trends in metal and construction thefts have changed in the past few years and police departments have found it necessary to change their responses accordingly. Initially, Marion County police formed partnerships with contractors and builders in response to an increase in thefts of building materials. After new construction decreased and foreclosures increased, the department noticed a shift in thefts from building materials to appliances and air conditioning units. “Later,” Detective Bush explained, “the focus began to shift again, and copper wire became the big target … Since copper was now being stolen, it was time to begin taking a more active role with our recyclers, hence, the partnership.”

Misunderstood intentions can hinder the development of successful partnerships. Police must realize recyclers are, by and large, law-abiding businesses. Conversely, recyclers must acknowledge that the police are not simply aiming to put them out of business, but rather they are confronting a legitimate problem when dealing with metal theft. Detective Bush acknowledges that building and maintaining successful partnerships requires hard work and daily contact. “I spend so much time at Ocala Recycling … they gave me one of their Ocala Recycling hard hats with ‘Det. Bush’ printed on it,” he said. These efforts, however, are rewarded with results. Since the program began last year, 29 copper, construction, and metal thieves have been arrested with the cooperation of this one business.

COPS Office Resources

Police partnerships with businesses, various municipal and county agencies, District Attorney’s offices, community groups, and nonprofit organizations are critical to managing the problem of vacant properties that have become easy targets for crime. A good source of information about partnerships is the COPS Office Problem-Oriented Guide for Policing (POP Guide) titled, Shifting and Sharing Responsibility for Public Safety Problems. The guide can help police educate, encourage, persuade, and request citizens, businesses, and government partners to assume a greater share of responsibility for local crime and disorder problems.

Another COPS Office POP Guide, Graffiti, can help law enforcement address the vandalism problems that are often associated with empty houses. Both publications are available free of charge from the COPS Office web site, www.cops.usdoj.gov.

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More information about Marion County’s efforts to fight metal theft may also be found in an interview with two local business owners in this issue of the Dispatch.

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