Elizabeth McGowan, Reporter

July 24, 2015

10 Min Read
What One Detroit Cop Did to Fight Illegal Scrapping

Eight years ago, Sgt. Rebecca McKay of the Detroit Police Department felt as if her city was falling down around her ears.

And it wasn’t due to an infestation of termites or other insects.

Two-legged scrappers, looking to score a quick buck off of soaring metal prices, were stripping the Motor City bare. Equipped with tools as simple as their bare hands and as complex as blowtorches, they boldly pilfered millions of dollars worth of copper pipes and wire, aluminum siding, air conditioners, furnaces, water heaters, radiators, ductwork and any other shiny and not-so-shiny objects from light poles and vacant and occupied homes, schools, churches and businesses. Some even sawed down fencing along highways. If Detroit had been a mouth, its smile would have revealed more gaps than teeth.

In tandem with mounting thefts, McKay noticed lines of overflowing trucks snaking for blocks and blocks beyond the gates of city scrapyards.

“It saddened me to see this city where my grandparents grew up crumbling before my eyes,” McKay told Waste360 during an interview in her Detroit office. “Properties were being destroyed. That touched me in such a way, I felt I had to do something about it.”

What she did was bone up on the law. She started ticketing junkers for minor offenses such as not being licensed or not covering their loads with tarps. Soon, police management realized how gung-ho she was about such enforcement.

By late 2008, McKay headed the newly formed copper theft task force. It evolved from a precinct-level enterprise to a four-person, department-wide effort that also included a detective and two officers. Her initiatives have drawn attention from a slew of news outlets, including a March feature in The New York Times.

It’s a natural fit for the dedicated, down-to-earth, 44-year-old whose great-grandfather served as a Detroit police detective and whose grandfather was an agent for the U.S. Customs Service. Firsthand exposure to police work came when her mother was hired as a police and fire dispatcher when McKay was growing up south of Detroit in Brownstown Township. Her father worked at several Ford plants.

McKay, a four-sport athlete in high school, joined the department 19 years ago because she sought a job that would challenge her mind and body. She began as a patrol officer and then switched to narcotics enforcement before delving into metal theft.

Task force members investigate scrap-related crimes in Detroit, prepare arrest warrants for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office and also issue ordinance violations to unscrupulous scrap metal processors and peddlers.

To ferret out the “bad guys,” they count on a tip line as well as undercover sting operations. At first, the regulations they used for guidance were a city code targeting junk dealers and scrapyards and a state law aimed at regulating nonferrous metals. The Michigan Legislature provided a third tool a year ago by passing a law that beefed up regulations and reclassified some misdemeanors as felonies.

While McKay is passionate about protecting property, she also has compassion for down-and-out scrappers living at the margins. She’s fully aware that many wrestle with the demons of alcohol and drug addictions.

“Illegal scrapping is easy quick cash for people on hard times, so this is something they have fallen back on,” she says. “Still, that doesn’t make stealing right. And that’s what they’re doing.”

Theft reports have nosedived under McKay’s watch. Most of that is because of her team’s doggedness. She’s aware that scrapping is less lucrative now due to plunging metal prices—and that the easier pickings have disappeared. However, that doesn’t mean all is hunky-dory in a city so denuded by underhanded opportunists. Some neighborhoods are modern-day ruins.

 “I’m just chipping away at the glacier,” she says about outsmarting scofflaws. “Every chunk that falls off makes me feel better.”

Waste360: People might wonder why you bother to curb metal theft in a city that has so many other challenges. Can you explain?

Rebecca McKay: I know there are people who discount what we do as just property crimes and say we should catch the real criminals. The fact is that these are real criminals committing real crimes. They are being prosecuted and some are going to prison. By ignoring nonviolent crimes as long as we had, I think is how we ended up where we’re at now. 

Number one, it’s a quality of life issue, and these issues are extremely important to the fabric of our society. If we don’t enforce them, it just perpetuates a Wild West mentality. It’s part of the broken windows theory that says if it appears no one cares, disorder and crime will thrive. It’s so true. I’m trying to improve the image of my city.

Waste 360: Who are some of your loudest advocates?

Rebecca McKay: Long-term residents are the people standing behind us and saying ‘thank you.’ Metal theft was a constant concern at community meetings. A lot of them were at their wit’s end because of the blight.

Our goal is to preserve the integrity of every building in Detroit. Is that possible? We’re doing what we can with investigations and prosecuting. I know there’s still a lot of frustration out there.

Waste 360: A spokesman at DTE Energy told us that the city’s gas and electric utility recorded 400-plus copper thefts in 2009. Is that why your office is in DTE Energy’s headquarters?

Rebecca McKay: DTE and AT&T were suffering huge losses when the task force started. The police department decided to partner with security specialists from these utilities so we could meet regularly and strategize. It made sense to open an office here in 2009.

It was one way of letting scrapyards know we’re here and that the times of buying anything and everything without inquiry are over.

Waste 360: That same DTE spokesman said copper thefts at the utility had dropped to 50 in 2014. Has the partnership paid off?

Rebecca McKay: Yes. Thieves were always trying to outsmart the scrapyards by selling the wire whole, disassembling it or burning it.

AT&T security really took this to the nth degree by counting and measuring all of its wire. In 2007, AT&T reported 444 thefts of copper wire. That dropped to 268 in 2008, 47 in 2009 and four in 2010. The company has reported two thefts thus far this year.

Waste 360: You mentioned scrap theft alerts. What are those?

Rebecca McKay: We use alerts if we don’t catch a thief in the act. A description of the stolen material is circulated to police departments and members of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries within a 100-mile radius. All of the scrapyards belong to ISRI. Alerts are more successful when the victim provides photographs of what was stolen.

If we have information on the suspect, we contact scrapyards in person or via a mass e-mail to find out if the suspects are customers.

Waste 360: Detroit has at least 13 licensed scrapyards. How can they help your investigations?

Rebecca McKay: The law requires that scrap recyclers make certain records readily available to law enforcement. If they fail to do so, we can ticket them directly or issue a request for an arrest warrant.

When we get a hit off a theft alert or a customer records request, we ask the scrapyard for more details, down to the dates and times a suspect visited. State law allows us to obtain photographs and the city code allows us to obtain video. By reviewing these documents, we can figure out whether our suspect sold the same material that was stolen. State law requires scrapyards to photograph scrappers and the metal they sell.

Waste 360: Do you have a success story that counted on these methods?

Rebecca McKay: A landlord suspected that her previous tenants had stolen radiators from her home. Using their names, we tracked down her radiators at a local scrapyard. The radiators had been destroyed but we charged the thieves with felony counts that included malicious destruction of property and receiving and concealing stolen property.

Waste 360: Some news stories mention that scrapyards think you have a vendetta against them. Why is that?

Rebecca McKay: That is not at all the case. I’m all about recycling but I want those yards to know that there are laws that need to be followed and they have a moral responsibility to comply. I’ve seen a change for the good at a lot of these scrapyards.

Some yards out there are constantly making the wrong choices. Others are blatantly disregarding the law and doing what they want to do. My investigations tend to lead me back to scrapyards where their sole source of income is peddler-based. Usually, bigger yards will pull away from that type of business.

A lot of recyclers figure if they don’t buy something, the seller will go across the street and make a sale. In a perfect world, scrapyards would turn away questionable materials.

Waste 360: Detroit’s city code gives you the power to inspect scrapyards and state law gives you the power to request specific information from scrapyards. Are those all the teeth you need?

Rebecca McKay: It’s frustrating that no law has language saying scrapyards can only buy from licensed junkers. As part of their receipt, junkers sign something called a declaration of truth, which serves as proof that they obtained the materials legally. Scrapyards hide behind the signed declaration even though they are supposed to make reasonable inquiries about the source of the material.

Waste 360: State law bans cash payments from scrapyards. Have they found loopholes?

Rebecca McKay: To circumvent that, some scrapyards write checks or give customers debit cards and then put cash machines on their premises. It’s a cat-and-mouse game.

With the newest law, scrapyards fought back when we tried to require that they mail checks to customers for all metal with a value of $25 or more. Now that only applies to catalytic converters, copper wire and air conditioners because those are the hottest items on the theft market.

Waste 360: The name of the copper theft task force evolved to the general assignment unit a few years ago. Why the change?

Rebecca McKay: Metal theft has decreased. We now also investigate dumping complaints and graffiti, and cases where we suspect squatters are stealing electricity from utilities, which are increasing.

Waste 360: In 2012, the police requested at least 222 warrants for scrap metal theft and other quality of life crimes. Through June of this year, that number has plummeted to 93, including 13 for scrap metal theft. Is your unit still necessary?

Rebecca McKay: Yes. I don’t think any crime can be completely stopped by any agency because there are always going to be those who refuse to follow the laws. But we can make it very difficult on those who choose to commit these crimes.

Keep in mind that there are some caveats with those numbers. One, officials with the city’s public schools now handle their own scrap metal thefts and statistics. Two, we know these crimes are under-reported because people think it’s no use.

We all want the city of Detroit to shine, free from the persons in society who feel like these criminal acts will be tolerated. The professional relationships that have been forged over the years have made the flow of investigations move more smoothly simply because everyone knows what is necessary to bring a case forward successfully.

Waste 360: You mentioned that long ago you wanted to attend law school and become a prosecutor. Any regrets?

Rebecca McKay: In late 1995, I was getting ready for bed and watching a news story about how the Detroit Police Department was hiring. That was it. I was hooked. I can’t imagine doing anything else. That whole wanting to be a lawyer thing? I got over that.”

About the Author(s)

Elizabeth McGowan

Reporter, Waste360

Elizabeth H. McGowan, an award-winning energy and environment reporter based in Washington, D.C., writes a weekly Industry Buzz article for Waste360. She was the D.C. correspondent for Crain Communications' Waste & Recycling News, and has written for numerous other publications since beginning her career at daily newspapers in Wisconsin. In 2013, she won the Pulitzer Prize in the national reporting category for an investigative series published in InsideClimate News that revealed how the nation’s oil pipeline infrastructure isn’t measuring up to federal safety standards.

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