When Minneapolis City Council President Barb Johnson (Ward 4) heard that thieves had broken into a church in the Northside's Camden neighborhood in July and stolen two large air conditioners for the copper inside, she was pushed over the edge.
On Wednesday, the council's Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Health committee approved a measure she sponsored that would bring city department leaders together in a task force aimed at dealing with metal thieves and scrappers.
"It's been a problem in North Minneapolis in particular for a while," she told Patch in an interview, so much so that the Minneapolis Police Department has started tracking copper thefts separately from all other thefts, in an effort to understand the problem better.
Johnson linked these thefts and others to people who might be kindly described as "freelance recyclers," frequently seen driving around town in beat-up pickup trucks piled high with old bed frames, bicycles, and dead washing machines. Most know them better as "scrappers." While they've long been a feature of city life, to the point that some leave old metal objects out for the scrappers rather than scheduling a pickup with city recycling services, what they do is technically illegal. By city ordinance, all recyclables left out on the curb belong to the city.
What's different now, Johnson said, is that these same scrappers are branching out into more substantial thievery, lured by the high prices of metals like copper.
"People are stealing air conditioning units out of windows," she said. "I even had a neighbor report that he had taken the topper taken off his pickup to go pick up wood chips from a (free) Park Board distribution site. When he got back a short time later, it was stolen."
She got more descriptive in front of the Minneapolis City Council's Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Health committee on Wednesday.
"It's just nuts what's going on in this city," she said.
Scrappers haven't caused as much damage Southwest Minneapolis. Police only cited two groups in the last two months for picking up recyclable material from the curb or from bins without authorization, and there have been a relatively small number of thefts from lawns and other incidents that are likely related to scrappers, according to records of police reports obtained by Patch. Still, they've earned the ire of several commenters on Southwest Minneapolis Patch and on the Minneapolis E-Democracy Forums.
"It's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease," Johnson said of the new task force. "I want to raise the issue's profile. I want my staff in there to work on this."
Minneapolis already has some tools at its disposal to try to attack the problem, from the above-mentioned ordinance against five-finger discounts on recyclables to measures against driving with unsafe loads and driving down alleys you don't live on. Johnson said the task force would also focus on public diplomacy, trying to educate residents to call 911 when they catch a scrapper in the act.