Ellington officials have boosted overnight police patrols to curb car and catalytic converter thieves, a persistent, costly and dangerous problem in town and throughout the state.
“We have heard loud and clear from residents and businesses concerned about car break-ins and costly catalytic converter thefts,” Deputy First Selectman David Stavens said Friday. “That’s why we are taking action now as well as adding resources to the proposed town budget to counter this troubling criminal trend.”
Resident trooper Sgt. Brian Santa said the increase in resources “allows us to strategically target and deter criminal activity in our community.”
First Selectwoman Lori Spielman said, “The increase in patrols adds another layer of deterrence against these opportunistic criminals.”
Catalytic converter thefts surged in the state and nation starting in early 2020 with the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic. Metals in the pollution scrubbing devices are worth hundreds of dollars on resale.
In Connecticut, teams of thieves equipped with jacks and electric saws have cut the devices from cars, buses and commercial trucks. Last year, converters were stolen from 28 parked school buses in Trumbull — knocking out the entire fleet. The damage reached about $75,000 because each bus was equipped with two converters.
In Windsor Locks over the past year, police say thieves have sawed 26 converters from just one company’s trucks. Det. Sgt. Jeff Lampson said the cost to residents and businesses in town is “well into the six figures,” not just in repair bills and insurance deductibles, but also in lost business due to hobbled vehicles.
Windsor Locks police union president, Sgt. James Gustafson, recently wrote to state Rep. Jane Garibay, a Democrat who represents the town and part of Windsor, saying the union “would like to know what, if anything, your office is doing at a legislative level, to address the issue of catalytic converter thefts.”
Gustafson noted that in two instances recently, police were exposed to “extreme risk and peril in their efforts to deter and detect these crimes.” In both cases, catalytic converter thieves confronted by police jumped in cars and sped directly at responding officers, narrowly missing the cruisers, police have said. Just this week in Milford, a converter thief with a reciprocating saw cut a man who confronted him, police there said.
The thefts are “a daily problem” in Windsor Locks, Gustafson wrote, noting that statewide policy prohibits police from vehicle chases when the only suspected crime is larceny.
“Unfortunately, “Gustafson wrote, “like in many cases, it seems like meaningful change won’t come about until a tragedy occurs.”
Responding to an email from The Courant with the union letter attached, Garibay said she worked on bipartisan legislation to curb the thefts, which Gov. Ned Lamont recently signed. Effective July 1, the law restricts scrap and junk dealers from buying catalytic converters and requires extensive record keeping of transactions.
“Together these steps should close the market for these parts,” Garibay said. “However, it’s important to remember that there are folks breaking the law now.
“So, will this legislation help? Absolutely. But we are also dealing with folks who break the law, and that’s why I am thankful for the police and the work they do to investigate these crimes. If there are additional steps we can take statutorily, I am always open to working on any legislation that will help keep our communities safe.”
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Other lawmakers said the problem can be solved only with a multipronged approach. Sen. Eric Berthel, a Watertown Republican, supported the legislation, but said it did not do enough.
Lampson, the Windsor locks detective and former head of criminal investigations in Manchester, said the legislation is impotent. The converters are being sold online and through fences, he said, and any thieves who were taking them to Connecticut scrapyards will now turn to out-of-state metal dealers.
To curb the rash of thefts, Lampson said, thieves must be caught and punished. But in most cases police cannot chase larceny suspects once they’re in getaway cars, so effective law enforcement is stymied, he said.
“You won’t see meaningful legislation until a homeowner in Farmington catches a round from one of these thieves,” Lampson said.
Santa, the Ellington resident trooper, said residents play an important role “in being the first line of defense against this type of criminal activity.
“Criminals look for easy targets,” he said. “So remember to remove valuables from your vehicle, lock your doors, take your keys inside your residence and park in a well-lit area.”
Jesse Leavenworth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.