INTRO: The state legislature has spent months hearing testimony about metal scrapping. Several lawmakers are hoping to turn their bills into law when they return to the capitol in January. Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus listened in on a town hall meeting in Detroit where a scrap metal dealer spoke and residents pointed fingers at him.
The London Metal Exchange determines the price of scrap. That means wherever you go, you’ll make $2.50 pound selling copper wires or pipes. Scrap steel or aluminum will pay you a bit less. These prices are high enough to breed thousands of scrappers.
Detroiters can hate acetylene torches as much as guns.
“There are too many blocks with only one house on it. Detroit is becoming a ghost town. We’re completely dysfunctional. We can’t put enough emphasis on that. We’re in a crisis. It’s a crisis.”
John Williams lives on the Northwest side. He was one of twenty residents in the basement of Grace Episcopal Church on Rosa Parks Blvd.
“They do not even fear stealing this scrap. And they’re taking it somewhere. They wouldn’t be doing it if they wouldn’t be able to sell it. Someone is buying this.”
One of the buyers is John Dingell, same name but not the congressman.
“When people say that scrap metal dealers are ruthlessly buying our heritage and damaging our cities you have to keep in mind that what we’re presented at the scrap metal yard isn’t necessarily what was stolen. It doesn’t look like it. It’s not something we can identify.”
Dingell runs a scrap yard in SW Detroit. He used to be one of just a few. But then came the real estate and banking crisis of 2008. Scrappers hit rural areas too. And at the same time, municipalities need more tax revenue. Michigan now has 150 scrap dealers. Dingell says of scrappers:
“They can melt it, hammer it and torch it so it’s no longer recognizable. This is one of the problems I have with the house legislation on scrap metal. It doesn’t consider the fact that scrap metal can be changed in it’s appearance to look like something legitimate when it’s not.”
This town hall meeting on scrap metal was organized by state senator Virgil Smith.
“One feature that I don’t like about the house package is they get rid of the tag and hold. That’s something that I do like.”
Senator Smith is battling with fellow democrats in the house about the best way to stop metal theft. 5 years ago, the legislature passed a law that forces scrap yards to hold onto what they’ve bought for seven days. This allows a guy whose catalytic converter got sawed off to comb scrap yards to look for it. The house bills would weaken that law and force scrap sellers to wait three days before getting paid. Different people with different interests.
“I want to stop there,” Senator Smith told residents. “Does everyone understand the legislation that is presented in front of you?”
Senator Smith’s bills would force scrap sellers to buy a permit from the county. Dealers would have to take pictures of each item. And the industry would have to start up a new scrap metal registry that coordinates with police. Brenda Philpote said the church where the meeting was held got its air-conditioners stolen twice.
“When crimes are no longer profitable and scrap metal, sorry Mr. Dingell, owners are the ones who should be punished the most. Because if I can’t buy your drugs you can’t sell ‘em.”
Another person from the neighborhood was Rose Mary Robinson. She’s the district’s representative at the capitol in Lansing.
“As long as there is scrap and people have access to scrap metal and to make a few bucks they are going to do it. I don’t care how many laws you put on the books. That industry is going to continue functioning even with all these laws. So the issue becomes how do we clamp down and enforce them.”
The Detroit Police Copper Theft Task Force began in 2008. See our past reports on it here. Lieutenant Derek Hassan was its leader until it was disbanded this year and Hassan retired. He told me the laws aren’t tough enough on scrap yards. Meanwhile scrappers desecrate schools, homes and churches every day, more at night. Much of the metal is sent to build up foreign countries.