Police Department Proposes Bill to Stall Denver's Catalytic Converter Thefts

Catalytic converters are a hot commodity on the black market.
Catalytic converters are a hot commodity on the black market. Evan Semón
With reports of catalytic converter loss and theft up 119,250 percent in Denver over the last three years, the Denver Police Department has proposed a bill to limit the sale of stolen catalytic converters in the Mile High City.

"We continue to see this as a significant problem, and right now, we don’t have a whole lot of mechanisms to hold people accountable for this," says Matthew Lunn, director of strategic initiatives at the Denver Police Department. "We're trying to eliminate the market for this."

The bill would require used-parts dealers to notify the Denver Police Department within one day of receiving a catalytic converter. That dealer would also need to photograph the catalytic converter and photocopy the ID of the person selling it, then send copies of those images to the DPD.

This proposal, which the Denver City Council Safety, Housing, Education and Homelessness Committee will consider on July 20, mirrors how Denver regulates items sold to pawn shops.

"This is an attempt to deter that activity in the City and County of Denver by requiring people selling these parts to properly identify themselves and then the auto parts retailers to report that information," says Lunn.

Most car owners don't think much about their catalytic converter until it's gone — and their vehicle's exhaust system suddenly sounds deafening. A catalytic converter is a device installed on a combustion engine to control emissions by using a mixture of precious metals, such as platinum, palladium and rhodium, to convert toxic gases and pollutants into less-toxic forms. It's these precious metals, which can be accessed via smelting, that makes a catalytic converter such a lucrative item to steal. A stolen converter can go for anywhere from $50 to $500 on the black market, while models from larger vehicles or turbo engines can bring upwards of $1,000.

"It does not take long to steal one of these catalytic converters," Lunn says. A thief can remove a catalytic converter quickly, but loudly, using a reciprocating saw, such as a Sawzall.

And thieves are doing it more often than ever. According to Lunn, since the start of January through July 5, there were 1,318 catalytic converters stolen in Denver, compared to 1,284 stolen through the same date last year.

In a letter attached to the proposed bill, the DPD notes that during the past session, the Colorado Legislature passed Senate Bill 009, an attempt to stop catalytic converter thefts across the state, where they've gone up by 5,000 percent over the past three years.

SB-009 requires used-parts dealers to keep a register logging all transactions involving catalytic converters. That register must include evidence that the dealer verified the identity of the seller, and that the seller signed an affidavit affirming legal ownership of the catalytic converter. That law also requires a used-parts dealer to pay for any catalytic converter that costs more than $300 using a check, rather than cash. Additionally, a dealer must take a photograph or video of the seller and the catalytic converter.

"The thing with the affidavit is that they are at least saying something of how they got it. They might say, 'Somebody else gave it to me.' Who? Or, 'I took them off of recycled cars that my uncles have.' But it's part of evidence, at least," says Representative Adrienne Benavidez, a Democrat from Commerce City who served as a prime sponsor on SB-009.

Benavidez says that she's gotten calls from Colorado residents who want the penalty for such thefts increased. "We have a pretty strong penalty for theft already, which is what this is," she says. "The problem is catching the person and figuring out who stole it, because you have to in order to find somebody culpable. You have to prove that somebody stole it."

SB-009 also requires auto-parts dealers to check a national database to see if the catalytic converter has been stolen. But there are limits to how effective that can be, Lunn notes, since catalytic converters don't have identification numbers.

If the ordinance is approved by Denver City Council later this summer, the DPD will be able to compare reports that it receives from auto-parts dealers to see if there are any patterns, Lunn says, and possibly identify organizations that are involved in serial catalytic converter thefts and sales. The DPD will "focus on these organized criminal networks that are stealing large amounts of catalytic converters," he adds.

Councilmember Kevin Flynn, who represents southwest Denver, would like to see this ordinance have a domino effect for other cities.

"I hope that this leads to our suburban partners adopting similar record-keeping and reporting requirements. The state law has fewer teeth, and my district borders other jurisdictions that have scrap-metal recyclers who will have to follow the state law but won't have our reporting requirements," Flynn says.

If the ordinance is successful, not only will catalytic converter thefts drop, but prosecutions associated with organized crime networks stealing them would increase, Lunn contends.

"This continues to be a problem, and we think this is one of many ways that we can help address this issue in the City and County of Denver," he concludes. "It’s not going to be the sole solution to the issue, but we think it’s an important one."
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.