Targeting Human Termites

April 22, 1995

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's ukase to the police to investigate scrap dealers and prosecute scavengers stripping vacant houses of plumbing fixtures and other valuable items is long overdue. Even a cursory look at the city shows that vacant houses are being devoured by human termites at an alarming rate.

"Some scrap dealers may think it's a victimless crime. It is not," says Housing Commissioner Daniel P. Henson III. "You leave a home vacant for 24 hours and it's totally stripped."

Two factors have caused this epidemic of stripping fixtures. One is the frightening increase in vacant houses taking place in Baltimore. When virtually whole blocks are full of abandoned houses, it is self-evident that they will be broken into and robbed of copper pipes, cast-iron radiators, balustrades and newel posts. All these are items that find a ready market among scrap and antique dealers.

The corps of active scavengers includes many of Baltimore's 60,000 drug addicts. If an addict has a $300-a-day habit, one way to pay for the habit is to strip two houses of copper piping. It happens.

Just go to any of the city's impoverished neighborhoods and observe the traffic of supermarket-type shopping carts. Stereo systems, television sets, refrigerators, washers and dryers plus all manner of piping and a sheet metal are being pushed and pulled through Baltimore streets.

Police officers see this traffic and do nothing, presumably because it is too time-consuming and complicated to figure out where all these items are coming from. The simplest way to attack the problem would be to outlaw the use of shopping carts altogether from public streets since most of those carts were stolen from supermarkets and other stores to begin with.

This problem predated the beginning of Mr. Schmoke's administration. In fact, a West Baltimore real estate man, James Crockett, called candidate Schmoke's attention to the situation eight years ago. After his election, Mr. Schmoke responded that his housing commissioner would take care of the matter.

That was the last Mr. Crockett heard about it until the announcement the other day that the mayor had sent a strongly-worded warning to 13 scrap dealers across the city.

Human termites exist because there is a thriving market for the goods they scavenge. The police ought to get tough on both scavengers and dealers. Dealers, for their part, ought to insist on positive identification from people selling antique iron fixtures or pipes. And when dealers buy those items, they should never pay with cash, only with checks. All of these steps would help dry up the illegal market that supports the scavenging.

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