BIRMINGHAM, Ala. Aug 5 2012– When Birmingham police burglary detectives got a report recently of a man selling thousands of dollars worth of locomotive batteries to a scrapyard, it automatically raised a red flag.
In years past, that curiosity might not have gone much farther than a few frustrating phone calls and a dead-end probe.
But police say a new online investigative tool has changed all that. With a few clicks of a computer mouse, detectives are solving more metal theft cases than ever before.
LeadsOnline, a nationwide program, lets officers search a database with millions of sales transactions from scrap metal recyclers each day to locate stolen metals.
The result, said Birmingham burglary Lt. Allen Treadaway, is a dramatic drop in property crimes that have long plagued the city. From January through June of this year, there has been a 17 percent decline in burglaries compared to the same time last year, and a 12 percent reduction in vehicle break-ins.
Police say would-be thieves are increasingly aware of the changes in enforcement, so the crimes are often deterred. Those who do bring in goods to scrap yards and pawn shops that are identified as stolen are often arrested and charged, police said.
“It’s an incredible tool for law enforcement,” Treadaway said.
Though crime has been on a decline nationwide and in Birmingham in recent years, property thefts — including burglaries and car break-ins — haven’t really budged. Authorities say the poor economy has kept thieves hard at work.
About a year ago, Birmingham police officials stepped up their efforts in those areas, assigning a full-time detective to monitor pawns shops, and one to do the same at the city’s vast number of scrapyards. To help them, they began to subscribe to LeadsOnline, which keeps a nationwide database of items sold to scrap metal recyclers, pawn shops and other places across all 50 states.
Brokers are required by state law or city ordinances to report their sales. When someone drops off items for sale, they must show their personal information.
The records are uploaded every day, and automatically available to law enforcement officers whose agencies subscribe to the service for a fee.
As a result, police officers can search the database by name, license plate, telephone number and other identifying information.
The locomotive battery sales in May caught the attention of detectives. They entered the name of the man who had sold the batteries in LeadsOnline, and were amazed at what they found.
“He had been selling an enormous amount of batteries over a short period of time,” Treadaway said.
Further investigation showed he was employed by a Birmingham-based battery company. Detectives determined he and another employee worked in tandem to sell more than 10,000 pounds of locomotive batteries worth an estimated $150,000.
Darius Driver, 35, and Phillip Harris, 39, have been charged with first-degree theft. They are awaiting trial.
Just last month, Det. Justin Howard said detectives were interviewing a suspect about stolen car batteries taken from a local business. They ran the suspect’s name through LeadsOnline, which showed evidence that he had sold the batteries the morning after they were stolen.
When confronted with the evidence they got from the computer search, he confessed to multiple counts of theft.
Because of the additional manpower and because of LeadsOnline, Birmingham police say they have cleared more than 100 metal theft cases that might have otherwise gone unsolved. Treadaway said they have seen a dramatic drop in the copper thefts from area businesses and churches, as well as utility companies.
“In our first two months of using LeadsOnline, we found more than 75 metal theft suspects who were victimizing the community with their crimes,” Treadaway said.
Without the investigative power of the computer program, he said, “these criminals would have continued their destruction in Birmingham and across the state of Alabama.”
Birmingham began using LeadsOnline about a year ago, and police Chief A.C. Roper said he knew the skill-set would benefit the department in fighting the issue of property crime.
“Implementing this program along with reallocating more personnel has made a tremendous difference across the entire city,” Roper said. “We always see good results when our business owners and citizens work with us.”