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In Baltimore County, violent crime is down, but incidents of theft are up. What's driven the increase is the lucrative market for scrap metal that has thieves yanking copper pipes out of the walls of vacant apartments and swiping catalytic converters from parked cars with the help of nothing more exotic than a cordless saw.

Between 2005 and last year, theft of valuable metal has increased 500 percent in the county, police report. It now represents nearly 2 percent of all the burglary and theft cases investigated by the county police.

Tonight, the Baltimore County Council has a golden opportunity to clamp down on the growing problem with a law that would require scrap metal processors to keep close records of what they buy - including checking the identification of the seller. They would also have to hold for at least five days items such as street light poles and cemetery urns that police may want to investigate as potentially stolen.

This last requirement has proved to be one of the most controversial elements of the measure, but it's essential that the council not relent on the waiting period despite considerable lobbying by the county's 18 scrap dealers, who stand to be inconvenienced.

While it's understandable that dealers might protest the law, they've only themselves to blame. When 12-year-olds can walk into a scrap yard pushing a grocery store cart full of copper gutters and manhole covers to make a sale, no questions asked, something is amiss.

That perhaps only a few dealers have allowed themselves to become fences for criminals, unwittingly or not, is beside the point. The new rules must apply to all - and they are the county's best hope for dealing with the problem.

What's particularly infuriating about metal theft is the damage the perpetrators leave behind. Removing pipes for which thieves may receive a few dollars can cause hundreds or thousands of dollars in damage to a new home under construction.

In one of the most audacious examples, thieves removed aluminum bleachers from Kenwood High School early last year. In another, copper wiring was ripped out of nine apartment buildings. Police rarely if ever catch the perpetrators. It's simply impossible to post officers at the entrance to every scrap yard all day, every day.

Admittedly, the fortunes of the scrap industry have diminished with the economic recession this year, and metal thefts in the county are down - although probably only temporarily. Police Chief Jim Johnson suspects the outlook will change as world industries recover and the demand for, and prices of, precious metals rise.

That leaves the County Council with an opportunity to adopt a shining example that can be emulated by the state's other counties - and perhaps eventually the Maryland General Assembly, which nearly approved such a measure in 2008, only to see it fall apart in the rush at the end of the 90-day legislative session. County Executive James T. Smith Jr.'s proposed restrictions on scrap processors would make it much harder for criminals to sell their ill-gotten gains - or at least less lucrative if they have to travel far to make any sale.

Readers respond

Another common sense reform by Jim Smith. I'm in the insurance industry and reforms like this save us all money.

Insurance Man

The Baltimore County Council finds the provision requiring scrap metal processors to hold items for five day controversial? What should be controversial is that this issue hasn't been addressed by them before now.

Sean Tully

Just checked my calendar; yep 2009.

Why is this measure only now becoming a law in Baltimore County?

Welcome to the 1980s, Jim.

Mr. Rational

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