As copper thefts increase, state lacks vital database to help investigators

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The sign outside of All Metal Recycling states it’s business model pretty clear – they buy scrap metal.

Until 2015, anyone they bought from was logged into a city-wide system.

“Pictures or photographs of the material would be taken, of what is being sold and of the individual,” said Morgan Koon, General Counsel at All Metal Recycling. “We believe it would be a useful tool for law enforcement.”

Police agreed the program worked, that they caught criminals much quicker because they could make easy comparisons early in an investigation.

“So if we came up with 300 pounds… that were stolen at a metal facility, we could look around and see who sold it and catch the people,” said Sgt. Trevor McDonald with the Wichita Police Department.

The state liked the idea so much, it created a statewide database and local agencies disbanded their own systems.

But lawmakers never funded it – and three years later that’s still the case. Meaning that complex database that was vital in investigations is gone. And now, copper thefts are becoming more frequent.

“The database continues to get pushed off by one continuing resolution after the next,” McDonald said. “In fact, we don’t have the money to set it up this time so we don’t have to comply with the law.”

Metal prices are rising. Wichita police estimate the price for copper is around $2.75 per pound. Since it’s more valuable, more people are looking to steal it. Just last week, a theft was caught on cell phone video and police the number of cases are getting higher. And each time, they have to start from scratch.

“We’re in this no man’s land,” McDonald said. “We’ve got a law in place but we don’t have the funds to create a database and move forward with this information sharing.”

Metal shops said they’ll comply with that new state law, but the database has to be activated by the state before they can.

“What we would have to do additionally or extra is miniscule compared to the benefit the database could provide,” Koon said.

Lawmakers said they’ll work to discuss funding for the initiative during the next legislative session.