It’s what made a recent theft, from Swafford’s Machine Company in downtown Anniston, easy to track down. A local scrap yard told Anniston Police Department investigators someone had sold them some hydrants.
“I was surprised how easy it was when we found these,” said Investigator Kyle Price, pointing out the chiseled-down logos on a collection of hydrants, now in an evidence locker. “I didn’t expect someone to sell them, the shape gives them away.”
Not all stolen scrap metal is so easily identifiable. If it were, Price and Investigator J. Hartley wouldn’t need to make up a special investigative task force to look into the growing problem in the city.
“The economy, and the shape it’s in, we think that spurs a lot of it,” said Sgt. Josh Doggrell. “That’s probably how offenders justify it to themselves.”
Metal thieves will try to steal valuable metals including copper and aluminum in an attempt to resell them to local scrap metal recyclers.
Despite the high number of similar crimes, it’s rare for any of them to be connected. Each investigation can lead to a different person in a different part of the city, Doggrell said.
“We started the detail around the first of the year,” Doggrell said. “It was the result of very high levels of metal and copper thefts.”
Around 20 to 25 a week, according to Price, who said he’s exclusively worked on scrap metal theft investigations for the last three months. Together with Hartley, the task force has been responsible for all the scrap metal theft investigations in the city, everything from air conditioning units stolen from commercial buildings to copper wire taken from vacated homes.
It’s been enough to keep them pretty busy, they said.
After a theft, "the next day we’ll go to every scrap yard in the county,” Price said. Investigators work closely with scrap-metal sellers to make sure stolen items don’t pass through their businesses. By law, metal recyclers are required to keep records, including photocopies of ID of all their customers and date of their transactions.
But even with all the records and identification required to sell scrap metal, Hartley said thieves aren’t scared away from exchanging stolen goods for money. That’s because most scrap metal doesn’t look like a fire hydrant, he said. It doesn’t look like anything.
“You can’t tell where it comes from,” Hartley said, pointing at a recovered air conditioning unit that had been stripped and taken apart. “It doesn’t deter them as much as we’d like.”
Rep. Bill Poole, R-Tuscaloosa, wants to make selling metal even harder. House Bill 278, sponsored by Poole, would require scrap metal sellers to keep photographs or videos of all their interactions and submit their records daily to a statewide database.
“Our law enforcement can’t drive around to every shop in the state,” Poole said.
Poole said other requirements in the bill would bar local metal shops from buying certain items -– including air conditioning units, rail guards and manhole covers – unless sold by a licensed vendor.
Price and Hartley said the legislation would make their jobs a lot easier, especially in regards to air conditioning units, which are both the most common and expensive thefts they deal with.
“That would help tremendously,” Price said.
And they need all the help they can get. Although the investigative team has been successful, Doggrell said due to manpower issues, Price and Hartley won’t be assigned exclusively to scrap metal thefts in the future. Doggrell said he didn’t know the exact number of arrests made by the investigators.
Right now, metal theft numbers are down from where they were in January, Doggrell said, and he believes some of the decline might be from the work of the investigative team.
Hartley said the scrap metal game is always one of catching up.
“If you don’t spend a lot of time on it, you can’t stay on top of it,” Hartley said. “You take a day off, you’re way behind.”