Originally published on 4/9/2022 by the Houston Chronicle
When I had the honor of serving Houston as police chief, together we endured an eleven-month period in which we laid to rest five officers who lost their lives in the line of duty. When we lose officers who are sworn to defend us, their death not only steals a piece of our collective heart and soul, it punches a hole in the social fabric that holds us together. When thieves trying to steal the catalytic converter from Deputy Darren Almendarez’s truck murdered him, they attacked all of us. In doing so, they also showed that the nuisance property crime of catalytic converter theft has turned deadly. It’s time for our society to react with unity and purpose.
In my conversations with police departments across the state, the most consistent message I’m hearing is that catalytic converter thieves are not only getting bolder, they’re also getting more dangerous. Those criminals have done the math and they clearly believe that the value of the precious metals in stolen converters far outweighs the risk of getting caught. Emerging reports of armed lookouts trading gunfire with police, security companies and even vehicle owners are indicators of just how far those criminals will go to make a buck.
I accepted an invitation to work with PGM of Texas, North America’s top recycler of catalytic converters, based in San Marcos, to help lead the search for solutions to this problem plaguing our state and nation. Legislators who have attempted to tackle the problem have certainly meant well, but they placed the burden of proof on recyclers and applied the threat of a felony conviction for possessing any undocumented converters. As a result, recyclers who ethically source their converters from locations like muffler shops and salvage yards have been exposed to prosecution while fly-by-night chop shops have been buying more converters than ever. If a law ends up causing black market activity to expand, it deserves a closer look.
That expanded black market is problematic for several reasons, starting with the fact that the supply of metals reclaimed from a recycled catalytic converter is shrinking due to war-related sanctions on their biggest original producer: Russia. Because those rare metals (platinum, palladium and rhodium) are used in applications ranging from cancer treatments to building more air-cleansing converters, their recapture by legitimate recyclers is more important than ever.
I was encouraged the other day to see that Lt. Governor Patrick issued an interim charge to study the impact of the catalytic-converter theft law passed in the most recent legislative session. I hope that he and other state leaders will shift their focus onto the actual criminals: the thieves who are sliding under vehicles with saws. Taking the fight to them will require:
- Prosecutors armed with increased penalties for catalytic converter theft. (Even criminals caught in the act these days are typically back on the streets within hours of their arrest.)
- Police departments with budgetary assistance to fund task forces to focus on the problem.
- Standardized licenses for the middlemen whose businesses consist of collecting converters from ethical sources like muffler shops and delivering them to licensed recyclers.
With no end in sight for the sanctions related to the war in Ukraine and China’s increasing appetite for the metals in catalytic converters, their prices will remain sky high and the incentive for thieves to risk arrest will continue. If the problem is not addressed in a comprehensive manner by law enforcement, the Legislature and the community, the trend of theft and and violence will only become more commonplace.
If Texans are wondering what they can do to help, individual vehicle owners can reduce the likelihood of theft by having a mechanic install an anti-theft shield. They can also park more safely, whether that’s in a well-lit area or inside a home garage when possible. On a larger scale, citizen involvement with law enforcement always makes a huge difference, whether that’s immediately reporting suspicious activity and thefts or sharing video from home security cameras like Ring doorbells. Neighborhood watch groups and engagement on sites like NextDoor also support the team approach.
While personal steps like these can help reduce the risk of property loss, the ultimate solution is a community galvanized to take meaningful action. Deputy Almendarez gave his life protecting the people of Harris County and we owe it to him and his family to unite behind solutions that work. The longer we wait to address the issue, the more we’ll see property damage, bloodshed and lost lives. Let’s heed this wakeup call and fix this together, setting a standard in Texas the whole country can follow.
Art Acevedo is the former chief of police for the Houston Police Department.