Annals of crime

Annals of crime

The FBI's annual Uniform Crime Reports are dry tomes filled with data on murders, assaults, burglaries, holdups, car thefts and other activities that keep police departments busy. Until now, it's held little interest for the shipping industry.

That may change. Starting next year, the UCR will contain an additional crime category - cargo theft.

When Congress reauthorized the Patriot Act this year, it required the FBI to compile statistics on cargo theft in a national database. The legislation also increased penalties for cargo theft.

The provision was a victory for insurance and transportation leaders. Groups such as the American Institute of Marine Underwriters, National Cargo Security Council and American Trucking Associations had lobbied for the change. They hope that by listing cargo theft as a separate category in the FBI stats, industry and government can get a better idea of the problem's extent - and direct attention and resources to fix it.

"Once we have better statistics on cargo theft, Congress will be able to provide funds to help law enforcement," said James Craig, president of the New York-based AIMU.

Persuading Congress to require federal tracking of cargo-theft statistics in the Uniform Crime Reports was a tough sell. When industry leaders visited lawmakers' offices, congressional staffers would tell them that cargo theft was not an issue that excited voters. "They'd say that it's a property crime, and that's why you have insurance," Craig said.

It wasn't until after 9/11 that the issue gained traction on Capitol Hill. Reps. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., and Howard Coble, R-N.C., were instrumental in placing the cargo-theft provision in the Patriot Act renewal.

The FBI's compilation of stats on cargo theft will begin with the new year. Although industry officials are pleased that the new statistic will be counted, they realize that it may be a while before the statistic fully reflects what's happening.

The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program depends on cooperation from more than 16,000 police departments, sheriff's offices and other law-enforcement agencies throughout the nation. That cooperation, and the quality of the statistics, varies widely. Unless things have changed since my earlier days covering a newspaper's police beat, supplying the feds with statistics isn't the local cops' top priority.

Nevertheless, industry officials are eager to see what the statistics show. Right now, the extent of cargo theft is a great unknown. Estimates of annual losses vary from $6 billion a year to more than $30 billion - but no one knows for sure, because much of cargo theft goes unreported or is listed as a different crime.

One thing is certain: Cargo theft is expensive - for insurers, carriers, shippers and consumers. When you flick on your TV, think about this: Its price includes about $100 just to offset losses from others that were stolen.

Joseph Bonney is editor of The Journal of Commerce. He can be contacted at (973) 848-7139, or at jbonney@joc.com.