Authorities say trends dictate items to steal

Thefts linked to supply, demand

Propane tanks are disappearing from Augusta's convenience stores, but they aren't the first hot item to make the top of local thieves' wish lists.

Just like the economy at large, criminal enterprises follow the law of supply and demand, police say. Instead of making what their consumers want, they steal it.

This fluctuating "market" means area law enforcement must stay up to date and identify the items that are the most attractive to thieves.

"What's popular today may not be popular next month or next year," said Capt. Steve Morris of the Columbia County Sheriff's Office.

In the past few years, thieves have shied away from stealing such things as car-stereo systems and furniture and instead targeted newer inventions, including GPS units and flat-screen TVs, Morris said.

The theft of more unusual items, such as the 60 propane canisters stolen this month, are harder to predict because it's not as clear what they are used for. Investigators suspect people are stealing them to sell or for use in home methamphetamine labs.

"It's mainly what they can sell -- what people can get off for a quick buck," said Richmond County sheriff's Investigator Kendall Brown.

Brown, now a violent crimes investigator, was once the point man of the sheriff's department's copper/metal task force.

Perhaps no other market trend in recent memory has caused the kind of widespread criminal activity as the sudden and sustained rise of metal prices -- particularly copper. And no other provides a better example of how authorities respond to trends in property crime.

For years, police were finding metal ripped from air-conditioning units, school bleachers and even fire hydrants almost daily. Most of the metal ended up at one of Augusta's many recycling centers for shipment overseas -- where Asian markets were driving up demand, Brown said.

In what proved to be a successful model, Brown and his supervisors devised a plan to cut off the market for the metal by working closer with the scrap yards.

The owners had traditionally been reluctant to call the police when someone dropped off a suspicious pile of metal because if it proved to be stolen they lost money.

Brown talked to the victims on a case-by-case basis and persuaded them to leave their metal at the yard because it had been damaged in the theft anyway. That way the yards wouldn't lose money because the victims could get insurance restitution. And they would be more likely to let police know when something suspicious came along.

Scrap yards were soon calling police when a suspicious load of metal arrived, and thieves were deterred.

Brown said they also worked to coordinate with other local agencies, including Columbia and Aiken counties. Because most thieves brought their metal to Augusta to sell, it only made sense that the quicker the deputies in Augusta knew the load might be coming their way, the easier it would be to catch the thief.

This kind of plan -- identifying trends, coordination among departments and attacking the money source -- is essential to fixing theft trends, Morris said.

"This has meant tremendous strides in communication (between departments) that has paid dividends to say the least," Morris said.

But while authorities feel such measures are successful, they are still reactive, he said. Keeping ahead of issues is always better, and prevention is key. Much of that lies in the hands of the public.

"We still preach prevention," he said.