Sam Hermann realized his catalytic converter had been stolen one morning in late November when he was on his way to work. His car was very loud and struggled to start — tell-tale signs of the overnight theft.
Hermann, a 22-year-old who lives in St. Paul's Merriam Park neighborhood, said his insurance covered the repair, leaving him to pay $500 for his deductible. The experience was no fun, but he knows it would be harder for others.
"It seems like not a very big thing, but I know that if I was in different circumstances with less help from my parents, and if I was lower income, this would be a way bigger deal," Hermann said. "It seems like a little thing to steal. But I can see this really ruining someone's life for a while."
The prevalence of such thefts in the capital city — despite previous efforts to crack down — has prompted the St. Paul City Council to explore a change to an existing ordinance that would make it a misdemeanor to possess a catalytic converter not attached to a motor vehicle without proof of ownership.
"Our law enforcement officers have challenges when they pull over people who clearly have removed catalytic converters, have a Sawzall in their car. But then they'll say 'These are ours,' or 'We got these from a friend,'" Council President Amy Brendmoen told the council at a Dec. 15 meeting.
The council is scheduled to vote on the ordinance change Jan. 19, following additional review by the City Attorney's Office.
Brendmoen and a majority of council members sponsored a May 2020 ordinance that made it a misdemeanor for an unlicensed person or business to buy or sell a detached catalytic converter.
The thefts have increased in both St. Paul and Minneapolis and across the country since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In St. Paul in 2021, there were 1,947 catalytic thefts, or more than five a day — up from more than 1,000 thefts in 2020, fewer than 500 in 2019 and just 144 in 2018, according to Steve Linders, police public information officer.
Thieves are after the precious metals inside the catalytic converter, which looks like a honeycomb, said Brandon Trondson of Glasgow Auto in St. Paul. A "bad" converter looks dirty and won't go for much, but a thief could get upwards of $700 for a clean, newer converter, he said.
Catalytic converter replacement runs about $1,500, costing St. Paul residents about $3 million dollars in repairs last year, Senior Cmdr. Kurt Hallstrom told the council Dec. 15.
"If we can't specifically tie that catalytic converter back to the vehicle ... we can't prove beyond doubt that that is in fact stolen," he said. "So, we are essentially letting that individual go."
In Highland Park, Jennifer Jones had her catalytic converter stolen not once but twice in December 2020. She'd had her car for less than three months when it was first taken. The second time it happened, shortly after her vehicle was returned from the mechanic, she tearfully watched from her home as her catalytic converter was stolen again.
"I just sat at my window crying, I was just so traumatized by it all," said Jones, 44.
The perpetrators are difficult to track, Hallstrom said.
"These are really crimes of opportunity occurring in the wee hours of the night in the darkness," he said. "The last two years' trends show that we have spikes over the course of the winter … when the nights are longer."
The Police Department invited 5,700 residents to a catalytic converter painting program in the summer months, and 1,600 people had their converters spray painted with the department logo, Hallstrom said.
But that symbol wasn't enough to keep Hermann's car safe. "I'm just kind of theorizing, but I think they can steal them and just sell them to people who don't care if there's paint on them," he said.
A bit of spray paint doesn't make much difference to the people who are buying stolen catalytic converters, Trondson said, because the metals are immediately melted down.
For Jones, making catalytic converter possession a misdemeanor is just a start. She said she paid $1,400 for repairs and wants to see more officers on patrol to prevent future thefts.
"They don't realize how hard they're actually hurting people," Jones said of the thieves. "Some people don't have that kind of money to put out to fix their car."