Longview drivers have been seeing a spike in catalytic converter thefts over the last four months.
A preliminary analysis by the Longview Police Department estimated 58 reported instances of catalytic converter thefts within the city this year, compared to nine cases last year and just three cases in 2019. More than two-thirds of this year’s thefts have occurred since June.
Captain Branden McNew arrived at the estimate by counting how many narrative reports filed by Longview officers used the word “catalytic” in them. McNew said the estimate likely is an undercount of the total status of the problem because narrative reports for crimes at businesses could involve multiple stolen converters.
McNew compares the converter thefts to vehicle prowls in that they are quick-hit incidents that usually happen at night. And much like vehicle prowls, the thefts are difficult for police to solve if there are no witnesses or cameras to record the instances.
“It’s always easier to solve something when you catch it in progress, especially in cases like this where there is little evidence left behind,” McNew said.
The thefts have been a near-daily occurrence in Longview’s 911 call logs since Sept. 17. Thieves broke into a used car lot Monday and stole multiple catalytic converters, according to a police report. On Wednesday, an employee for a business on 12th Avenue was cut with a knife while confronting a man in the process of potentially stealing a converter from a truck.
Catalytic converters are large devices located below car engines that reduce the amount of pollution contained in the exhaust.
The converters are targeted by thieves because of their use of precious metals, including platinum, and because of their relatively easy access from outside the vehicle. Replacing a stolen converter often costs the owner at least $800.
The recent converter thefts are not isolated to Longview. A review of 911 call logs shows since the beginning of August at least four successful or attempted thefts have been reported in Kalama and Woodland and three thefts reported in Kelso. Other high-profile instances of catalytic converters being stolen have been reported throughout the year.
In June, the Kent Police Department recovered hundreds of stolen catalytic converters that were being sold to people outside of Washington.
Determining exactly how many catalytic converters have been stolen can be tricky. Cowlitz County Sheriff’s Office Chief Criminal Deputy Troy Brightbill said spelling mistakes or the details of the crime can lead to the crime being recorded differently.
“You may just have a case where the converter is stolen, or it may have been a stolen vehicle where a bunch of parts have been taken off, including the converter,” Brightbill said.
Woodland Police Sergeant James Keller said thefts in the city peaked near the beginning of the year with multiple reports a week. The police now are responding to about one case per week of a confirmed or suspected theft.
Keller said heightened public awareness may have helped drive down the case numbers. He said an increasing number of homes and businesses are installing cameras with motion sensors to catch potential criminals who approach their cars.
“A lot of citizens and business owners have been more vigilant about watching out and calling things in when something doesn’t seem right,” Keller said.
Solving the cases can involve cooperation between multiple law enforcement agencies, as there are no recycling facilities in Cowlitz County that handle the precious metals from catalytic converters. Both Brightbill and Keller referenced recent cases where stolen parts were recovered by cooperating with agencies in neighboring counties.
The Longview Police Department has a major crimes detective assigned to follow up on previous thefts once a suspect has been caught or arrested. When police arrested a man in August who was caught taking the converter from a Cowlitz Indian Tribe van, the detective compared his tool marks to ones left behind after other thefts.
Outside of those arrests, McNew said public vigilance and awareness are the best steps to reduce the number of converter thefts going forward. McNew recommends businesses and residents who can afford to install cameras or lights do so and notes other steps can be taken to make vehicles less appealing targets.