A police officer’s view of cargo crime

TORONTO, Ont. – In the grand scheme of things, Trevor Archibald knows that there is no way to be completely successful at his job, but rather than discouraging him, he turns each small, individual victory into a driving force that renews his enthusiasm for his work.

Archibald is a detective in auto theft unit of the Ottawa Police Service, and as such, it is often his duty to investigate cargo thefts. As a police officer, Archibald knows that there will never be an end to crime. Property theft will always be an attractive option for the less-than-law-abiding element in society, but rather than be frustrated by the reality of the situation, Archibald is philosophical about the nature of the job.

“What we do, at the investigative level, is make people aware we are disrupting the activities of organized crime. That’s what we’re going to do. We are going to continue to disrupt their activity. To think we’ll stop it is a little dreamy, a little ambitious, but we’ll be interrupting it.

“It’s an endless pursuit. There is no end. We are not marching towards a finish line. It keeps advancing. It keeps being a certain distance away. That’s frustrating. But the results generate enthusiasm. They keep the motivation going. I don’t think in my tenure we’ve come across a loss of enthusiasm or a will to persevere, although I could see it happening: if you put me in a fraud section I would be more discouraged. You’re doing bounced cheques for ten years. They’re never ever going to stop.

“In some sense it is like being a postal worker. The mail is always going to come through. It never stops. Crime is always going to continue. But that’s the job—to disrupt all these people’s ability to do it.”

Archibald was in Toronto to share his expertise and perspective at a recent symposium on cargo crimes. Afterward, in an exclusive interview with Truck News he spoke about why cargo theft is so hard to prevent and what the industry can do to make itself less vulnerable to thieves and robbers.

First though, he wanted to explain exactly how cargo crimes are classified and handled. He said because of their nature, it is very easy for cargo thefts to be categorized in ways that don’t make them easy to track. It also means the goods that are stolen aren’t the main focus of his investigations.

“In auto theft unit, our mandate is specifically vehicle theft for profit. If a facility is broken into and a load is stolen from a trailer, but the trailer is never moved, that would fall under the investigative scope of break and enters. We deal with the vehicle and the subsequent load theft because the vehicle is stolen. The break and enter squad doesn’t really work as an organized crime unit, although break-ins are pretty organized, they are typically not run by crime networks, big well-established organized crime.

“There are a lot of load thefts that would be reported as break-ins. That wouldn’t be captured [in cargo theft statistics] because the first thing we would look for would be the vehicle theft, the trailer theft itself. Then the value is another issue, because the value of the load is often not known at the time of the report. So it can get misclassified as theft over $5,000 or theft under $5,000 very easily if there is no value established.”

Archibald insists that cargo theft rings are part of an organized crime problem—cargo stolen from the Ottawa area almost always makes its way through criminal networks based in Montreal—but if a cargo theft is assigned to the break and enter division, Ottawa Police Service’s intelligence unit (which is responsible for organized crime investigations) doesn’t oversee the case.

Because cargo thefts can be assigned to different groups of investigators, Archibald says that they are hard to track. Officially, Ottawa police counted five reported cargo thefts in 2013. But he knows that number is far from indicative as to how much cargo is stolen. In reviewing the cases before making his presentation, Archibald and his colleagues discovered a sixth cargo crime in the records that hadn’t been classified as such. When he attempts to account for the unreported thefts, the number of incidents per year jumps significantly.

“I think 20 would be very reasonable to predict. Just on a quick search we missed one. We found five, and we missed one, so we missed one of six. Maybe we missed another in looking for these stats, and then all the unreported ones. So only 35% are reported, then that gives you 20 real easy. I think 35% is a fair number of what is reported, but I couldn’t source that statistic.”

(In total, Archibald reports the six stolen loads had a value of approximately $150,000 in total, with the highest value load accounting for nearly $100,000 of that amount.)

By not reporting cargo thefts to the police, Archibald says shippers are making things easier for the criminals. He doesn’t say a reluctance to talk about cargo crime makes trucking companies any more vulnerable to being victimized, but “I think it makes the industry still vulnerable. I don’t know if it makes it more vulnerable because without the police being involved, they are going it alone. They are taking on this fight against this crime problem without much help from police, and the support network that comes with having law enforcement aware of the problem.”

Additionally, by keeping quiet and not reporting thefts, Archibald believes that the trucking industry is short-changing itself from benefitting from available resources.

“The squeaky wheel does get oil a lot of the times. If the industry and the major stakeholders were to speak up and say they are suffering these losses and they are victims, I think at a certain level of complaint, it may get some address from policing as a profession or as a field. It might get more support from law enforcement if it gets screamed and squawked about. If nobody complains, then the police are led to believe everything is fine. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got an informant network that says this crime is happening if you have no victim, because you have to come forward to be a victim. You’re only a victim if you care about it.”

Even if police departments wish to do more about preventing cargo crime and want to spend more resources to recover stolen goods, Archibald says they are at least somewhat subject to the demands of public opinion, and right now, the public really doesn’t care too much about load heists, which makes it difficult for police departments to justify the allocation of resources to tackle the problem.

“Property crime is so low on the priority scale, typically because it has been and likely will be for a long time viewed as a victimless crime, because there is no violence, there is no sex, there are no drugs—which is a fallacy because there is a ton of drugs in the trucking business.

“Stealing 53 feet of diapers, how sexy of a file is that? Nobody cares about that. Not nobody, but it’s not going to sell one newspaper, let alone a lot. If we stop that and have a big press conference and sit there with our flags on that table, and say we recovered 60 million diapers, newspapers and the public at large, would rather hear we infiltrated a drug network and got 50 pounds of marijuana. They all want to hear that more—the regular citizen would rather here we got drugs off the street than we recovered 2,000 fire extinguishers.”

Beyond getting the public interest in the fight against cargo theft, Archibald says that with all of the demands put on the police these days, it is difficult to give officers sufficient training to allow them to confidently and capably deal with cargo theft situations. In particular he says the averaged uniformed officer on the street has “zero” education about load thefts.

“It’s a huge problem. It gets worse because the willingness to stop a semi with a trailer on it is very low. I was in traffic for four years, and I did a handful of stops of heavy trucks—a handful in four years. So a regular street cop can go five years of doing break-in calls and other calls, and your boss expects you to get a couple of tickets. You’re not going to pull over the 18-wheeler. It’s not going to be the one. They’re intimidating as hell for somebody who doesn’t do it every day. So the probability of detection for the thief is so low that it’s almost no risk.”

He adds that getting officers interested in cargo crime is an uphill battle given all of the other issues they are faced with on a daily basis.

“How do you make a captive audience? You can’t force somebody to want to receive that information. At a certain point there is an overload. You are asking officers who are just bombarded with demands and requests and responsibilities, as soon as you give them some information or knowledge, it’s another thing they think they’re expected to engage in, and it’s hard to get buy-in for something that is almost optional. That kind of enforcement is almost optional.”

Archibald says that the fact that cargo theft isn’t perceived to be a sexy crime or a crime that is high on anybody’s priority list doesn’t help spur officers to invest a lot of time becoming proficient solving cargo thefts.

“If you were to recover 53-feet worth of whatever, let’s say cheese, you’re probably looking at a $50,000 or $100,000 recovery. It looks great for a minute. It looks great for 30 seconds to your boss who says, ‘Great, excellent. You did a good job getting back that $100,000 worth of cheese. Now I need a couple more stops on tickets.’

“It’s our job, and I don’t think the fanfare that comes from these recoveries feeds the desire to want to do it, and if it does, it’s probably the wrong person doing the job, if that’s the motivation. To motivate somebody to want to be involved stopping trucks and increasing detection, I don’t know how you do that. I’m already motivated for it, where I’m not motivated for some of the other investigative stuff.”

Another problem encountered by police officers looking to learn more about specialized subjects like cargo crime is a policy that is used by many police forces (including Ottawa’s) that rotates officers out of specialized details and moves them into other departments on a frequent basis. Typically, he says five years is a standard term on the job, although Archibald, who teaches about cargo crime at police college and who is on the board of directors of the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators, managed to obtain a two-year extension. He said the loss of expertise as specialists are moved through the department makes it difficult for groups like the auto theft unit to experience any continuity and to pass along—or develop—expertise.

As to what advice he’d give trucking companies as to how to prevent becoming victims of a cargo theft, Archibald says the best thing they can is to take steps that make their particular businesses less inviting to those looking for an easy score.

“Vulnerability is the only thing I think members of the industry can address. If you make yourself less vulnerable, you are a less likely target. Security measures—today we talked about checking out your drivers’ criminal history, etc.—the more of those systems that are in place, I think they reduce the vulnerability to this because the next person will be more vulnerable. In a target-rich environment, there is no sense chasing the fastest. You chase the slowest. The cheetah always goes for the one at the back of the pack. That’s no different here. It’s easier to steal your money from a bank than to go to Fort Knox to get it.”

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