PaCCS placement : Criminal networks and catalytic converter theft in England and Wales

Guest post by Raphaëlle Golder

I was lucky enough to be enrolled in the three-month PaCCS placement for a research project in collaboration with OPAL, the police’s Intelligence Unit for Serious Organised Acquisitive Crime. The purpose of my study was to help OPAL better understand how stolen catalytic converters from cars were used and disposed of by criminal groups. Since catalytic converters are stolen for the precious metals they contain, this included the question of whether criminal groups would attempt to extract those metals themselves, and if they would export them abroad through international criminal networks. The other purpose of my study was to suggest ways to better track the number of stolen catalytic converters, since the police only have a partial view of the number of crimes; many if not most victims will not report the crime to the police, and simply replace their missing catalyser. 

To answer those questions, I turned firstly to open sources, including academic articles and press articles; I also investigated social media platforms (especially Youtube, Reddit, and Facebook), which offer a risk-free outlet for stolen catalytic converters. Lastly, I reviewed police data and interviewed experts on the problem. 

One of the main challenges of my research was the lack of previous academic research on the topic (rates of catalytic converter theft dramatically increased in 2019-2020), as well as the fact that police intelligence on the subject is extremely scarce. The fleeting nature of the crime and the swiftness and constant mobility of the criminals, the complexity of the disposal chain of scrap metal, and the difficulties to monitor them closely make this epidemic of theft particularly difficult to deal with for the police. The lack of public funding also poses a problem, since funding is more oriented towards fighting violent crimes. The enormous profits made by catalytic converter thieves, however, are alarming and require immediate public attention, as it could help fuel other harmful criminal activities, like arms and human trafficking.  

Considering the scarcity of research and intelligence, most of my work consisted of interviewing members of the police force, the industry, and my research to obtain first-hand information from their experience of the problem.  
The opportunity of interviewing professionals and experts from a variety of backgrounds also forced me to pivot away from the book-centred research I had been used to so far; this human aspect of my research was probably what I was most enthusiastic about. I met very inspiring people with first-hand knowledge of complex issues, including agents in the field or as well experts of more theoretical and academic backgrounds. This was an excellent experience for balancing out the different aspects of the problem at hand, as well as developing the habit of not dismissing the opinion of one side or the other when there were conflicting ideas.  

As a Ph.D. student in humanities, this placement has been an extraordinary opportunity to apply my research skills to action-oriented research, with the long-term goal of making a real impact on police action and public policy. I am so grateful to have been part of it and can only thank those who made it possible and supported me throughout, most particularly the OPAL team, and my PaCCS supervisor Dr. Tristram Riley-Smith. 

Image: Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash