Policing scrap industry for stolen autos
Every 45 minutes an automobile is stolen in the City of Boston. That adds up to more than 1,000 cars a month or, as in 1984, approximately 14,500 a year, according to Boston police statistics.Skip to next paragraph
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Roughly half the stolen cars are recovered by police. The rest -- more than 7,000 cars -- seem to disappear.
Where do they go? Some are simply repainted and driven out of the state; some are dumped into bodies of water or abandoned in remote areas after the thieves are done with them. A few have been shipped to South America by professional car-theft rings, which sell the cars for two or three times their value in the United States.
But most of the cars, law-enforcement officials suspect, are driven to ``chop shops'' (illegal garages) in the Boston area, where they are stripped of fenders, doors, tires, and other parts. Later, authorities say, the remains are crushed and then trucked to a giant shredding machine that can rip an automobile into fist-sized bits of scrap metal in minutes.
In effect, the shredder reduces the family car -- a 11/2-ton piece of incriminating evidence to an automobile thief -- into the equivalent of metallic confetti. That usually is enough to turn even the most determined investigator's trail cold.
``We probably have thousands of stolen cars on the books that have already gone through the shredder, but we will never be able to identify them,'' says Boston Detective William Kelley.
The 20-year veteran of the Boston Police Department's 12-man Auto Theft Squad says such shredders are an ``easy and profitable'' way for car thieves to get rid of the evidence. The scrap shredding process yields $25 to $75 per car scrapped, depending on the current price the steel industry is paying for scrap metal.
According to law-enforcement officials, it is conceivable that a car could be stolen late at night in Boston, stripped of its most salable parts in someone's garage or back yard, and fed into an auto shredder early the next morning, perhaps before the vehicle is reported stolen.
The problem of stolen cars disappearing in shredders is nothing new. It was identified as a serious concern during former Gov. Edward J. King's drive against car theft in Massachusetts in the early 1980s. Legislation was drafted to license and monitor scrap-metal processors, but the industry's lobby came out against the bill. It was defeated.
Now, in the midst of another anti-auto-theft drive by Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, state and local law-enforcement personnel are again suggesting that licensing and monitoring of auto shredders might help make a significant dent in the problem. The scrap industry disagrees.
Meanwhile, the car-theft rate in Massachusetts remains at roughly twice the US average. Even worse, for the past decade the Bay State has consistently earned the unwanted distinction of being ``the car-theft capital of the United States.'' According to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics, more cars are stolen a year in Massachusetts (per capita) than in any other state.
In 1983, local insurance companies paid auto-theft claims totaling almost $80 million. Roughly 50,000 cars were stolen in Massachusetts that year -- and 16,000 of them were not covered by theft insurance.
State and local law-enforcement agencies have launched a head-on assault against illegal ``chop shop'' operations, which are believed to be the primary cause of the state's high auto-theft rates. Recent federal legislation requiring car manufacturers by 1986 to begin etching identification numbers on 14 car parts such as fenders and hoods should deal a significant blow to the illegal auto-parts industry. But police and other auto-theft experts say there are other opportunities in areas downstream from the actual stealing and stripping of cars where investigators might work effectively to make it even more difficult for car-theft rings to operate.
Car shredding is one of those downstream areas, they say. There are five auto-shredding machines operating in Massachusetts and roughly 200 of them in service nationwide. Scrap processors are under no official obligation in this state to ensure that all the cars they shred are not stolen, although some say they voluntarily monitor the incoming hulks to prevent the shredding of stolen vehicles. Some states that have had high car-theft rates have licensed shredders.