Newswise — Metal theft is emerging as one of the most serious crime problems of the 21st century, a University of Indianapolis criminologist says, but its true economic and societal impact remain largely undocumented.
Kevin Whiteacre, director of the Community Research Center in UIndy’s Department of Social Sciences, hopes to spark more study and discussion with a new website, MetalTheft.net. The site may be the world’s first online repository of international news, research and historical background on the theft and damage of construction materials, vehicle parts, plumbing and electrical equipment, public infrastructure and countless other objects, not for their value as manufactured goods, but simply for the worth of the various metals contained within.
“This has redefined theft to me,” says Whiteacre, an assistant professor of criminal justice and sociology at UIndy. “You’re no longer stealing a specific item for its value as an item. You’re stealing it for its constituent parts.”
Metal theft is not new, Whiteacre is quick to point out. Historic accounts archived on the site trace the crime back for generations in the United States alone. In the late 19th century, delinquent children were sometimes organized into metal theft rings that one grand jury investigation called “a nursery … of crime.”
Recent decades, however, have seen an apparent increase in metal theft, at least anecdotally. Authorities noticed a rise and fall in copper thefts in 2008 as the market price of the metal climbed and then receded. That same year, using data from local police agencies, Whiteacre and his students conducted a pilot study showing that metal theft was costing Indianapolis-area residents and businesses nearly $1 million per month.
Aside from individual financial losses, metal theft can pose serious public safety issues, such as when thieves strike utility or transportation facilities.
Despite the growing concern, little hard data exists about the true scope of metal theft. For example, the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program – the key source of national crime statistics – does not provide a specific category for local agencies to report metal theft.
Most of the reporting that does take place, however, is cited at MetalTheft.net, along with information about theft-prevention efforts and interviews with the handful of researchers in the field. The site is operated by Whiteacre, who acts as managing editor, and contributor Chad Posick, a doctoral candidate in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University.
The site’s intent, Whiteacre says, is to take a scholarly approach to the issue but make the information widely available to law enforcement, the business community and other interested parties who may not have access to academic journals.
“We want to weed through the Internet noise and highlight quality research and reporting, with historical context,” he says. “The site also provides a central space for scholars and other professionals to share information.”