Scavengers with shopping carts Crackdown must resume: Thieves ripping off vacant houses hasten neighborhood decline.

June 14, 1996

A YEAR AFTER Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke urged the police to investigate scrap dealers and prosecute scavengers stripping vacant houses of plumbing fixtures and other valuable items, a crackdown has finally begun. But it was so poorly thought out that Western District police suspended it after just two weeks.

City officials have long been aware of the growing problem of scavenging that in many neighborhoods starts as soon as units become vacant. Surely this is a problem that housing officials and the police can address. A crackdown must be resumed.

A housing department memo describes the progressive disappearance of everything that is valuable: "Within the first 24 hours the copper piping, furnaces and hot water heaters are removed by vandals. Usually in the next few weeks the aluminum windows, the cast iron bathtubs, light fixtures, cast iron sanitary piping, aluminum rain gutters and downspouts have also been removed. In the course of removing the bathtub, the ceramic tile on the walls and floors is destroyed beyond repair. Other items often taken are rear yard gates and storm doors."

Because most scrap metal dealers are located on the west side of the city, a constant traffic of shopping carts filled with stolen goods can be seen on many streets. Yet police seldom take action, deeming arrests and investigations to be too time-consuming unless the owner of the house catches a perpetrator in the act and files a complaint.

The experimental crackdown that Daniel P. Henson III announced with great fanfare in early May was a bureaucrat's dream. People caught without a $5 junker's license were to have shopping carts and their contents stored by the city until a court hearing. Except that it turned out that the city had no mechanism for issuing those junker's permits.

As the authorities rework the scheme, they should not impose yet another burden on an already congested court system, particularly since many scavengers do not have a fixed address. A simpler approach would be for the City Council to pass an ordinance banning shopping carts from city streets. Virtually all of those carts -- worth $75 to $150 each -- have been stolen from supermarkets in the first place.

Pub Date: 6/14/96

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