HOUSTON — The odds of arresting catalytic converter thieves are slim to none at Harris County’s two biggest law enforcement agencies, according to an analysis of records obtained by KHOU 11 Investigates.
Marie Featherston learned that the hard way after a thief cut the catalytic converter off her daughter’s SUV. It happened outside of their church -- of all places.
“She starts her car and my husband and I looked at each other and went ‘uh oh,” she said. “None of us suspected anything.”
Church security video showed how the thief parked right up against her daughter’s vehicle, then slithered under “like a snake” as the mother described it, to cut off the part that contains the valuable precious metals.
“He was in the parking lot from the time he entered to the time he exited for less than six minutes,” Featherston said.
In their case, the bad guy got away with the crime, and records reveal so does nearly everyone else in the Harris County Sheriff’s Office jurisdiction. From January 2021 to May 2022, 4,543 catalytic converter theft incidents were reported, but only 56 arrests were made. That’s a 1.2% clearance rate.
“That is absolutely unacceptable. I don’t know how else to say it,” Featherston said.
Major Wayne Kuhlman oversees HCSO's criminal investigations bureau.
“I’m certain that the guys know what their success rate is,” Kuhlman said. “They know they’re winning right now.”
He said a huge challenge is proving a catalytic converter is actually stolen. Most auto manufacturers do not etch the part with a VIN or vehicle identification number, to easily tie the part back to its rightful owner.
“You almost have to watch them finish the act, have it in their possession, move in on them and arrest them,” Kuhlman said.
At the Houston Police Department, investigators face the same hurdles.
“If I can't prove you have stolen property, then there are no charges,” said Sgt. Tracy Hicks with HPD’s auto theft crimes task force. “We do catch people that have a truckload of catalytic converters that we let go.”
So how many people does HPD arrest for stealing catalytic converters? Turns out, the department doesn’t exactly know. Responding to an open records request, HPD’s records division initially provided data showing 5,355 incidents reported from April 2019 to April 2022. During those three years, it identified only 20 arrests — a 0.4 % clearance rate.
Hicks disputed those numbers.
“Trust me, we've had way more than 20. I mean, we've had 20 in the last month and a half, two months,” he said.
When asked for clarification, HPD could not come up with total arrest numbers. A department spokesperson said catalytic converter theft suspects are often charged with other crimes, and HPD is unable to track those because of “coding issues with their records system.”
Regardless of the police agency, victims like Featherston said car owners continue to suffer and it’s time for a change.
“The criminals are winning, they’re the ones getting rich,” she said. “Something needs to be done.”
Earlier this month, Houston city council banned business-to-business reselling of stolen catalytic converters and now requires anyone in possession of a cut converter to show proof of ownership.
How to protect yourself
Houston police investigators recommend purchasing a cheap engraving tool to etch the last eight digits of your vehicle identification number onto the catalytic converter. Also, spray-painting the part with bright-colored high-temperature paint can act as a deterrent for thieves who attempt to resell the catalytic converter. Additionally, there are a variety of products available online to discourage theft. They include steel-wide cages and steel covers that wrap around the catalytic converter. More tips from the police can be found here.