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A SWAT for swatting at Dumpster divers

Submitted by on Thursday, 5 March 2009 2 Comments

You’d think a part of the country facing police layoffs while battling a mammoth methamphetamine problem plus the distinction of being the auto theft capital of the country would have more to worry about than who’s rummaging through the trash.

That’s not the case in California’s Central Valley, as first one and now another city is taking a zero-tolerance stance on the grave public menace of Dumpster diving.

That’s right: Homeless people are pilfering recyclables and the poor are searching for everything from food to reparable electronics. Something must be done to stop them.

About a year ago, the City of Modesto created a $500 fine for anyone caught exercising the axiom “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” The offense is a misdemeanor, meaning police now can arrest folks caught smelly-handed.

This week, Sacramento’s City Council voted to stop the scourge.

Bans have been considered in other cities as well. Fairbanks, Alaska, decided against it after huge crowds pleaded with officials to preserve that was, in essence, the city’s only recycling program.  Residents in Reno, Nev., have been pushing since 2006 but haven’t succeeded so far.

The reasons sited in support of the changes were similar in both California cities: Dumpster divers can injure themselves, create messes on neighborhood streets and steal documents needed for identity theft.

Modesto City Councilwoman Kristin Olsen was particularly poignant, telling how her husband was the victim of identity theft after someone took information he’d left at a brokerage firm from a garbage bin.

“It takes a lifetime to build and maintain good credit, and only about five minutes to throw it all away,” she said.

Here’s a hint: Shred it. Most folks figured that one out years ago. For those who can’t afford an electric model, shredding scissors are cheap and effective. Or you can always use the manual shredders at the end of your wrists.

Besides, aren’t there already laws to deal with identity theft?

Granted, some people have strange emotional attachments to their garbage. I once knew a man  who would sprint after the garbage truck each week, clutching his recyclables as he ran. He wasn’t about to put them out the night before and let some homeless person have them.

As the economy has faltered, though, people in my neighborhood have put everything from furniture to clothing on curbs with signs telling people to help themselves. I wonder what the fine is for conspiracy to commit Dumpster diving.

Unfortunately, this is one of those false crises that fires up people because it’s an annoyance they face weekly. I’m not without sympathy. Every Wednesday, I wake to find trash scattered in front of my house. Except it’s the work of a sloppy garbage-truck driver, not a potential identity thief.

And in these times, when so many of the nation’s problems seem so overwhelming, the public likes to see something fixed once in a while even if it wasn’t broken to begin with.

Take it from a retired law officer who voted against Modesto’s ordinance: “Dumpster diving is not a jail crime. It’s a way for people to survive,” Councilman Will O’Bryant said.

It’s too late for Sacramento and Modesto. The deed already is done.

But for any other city pondering a similar solution to a non-issue: Stop Wasting America’s Time.

Know of someone who deserves a SWAT? Click here to make a nomination.

Copyright 2009 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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  • Vanilla Cokehead said:

    What a bunch of BS – I bet the motivation is more to give the cops another means to have “probable cause” to hassle people – or to vent the snobbery and elitism of people who think scavenging in others’ trash is undignified.

    As John Stossel puts it, “give me a break!”

  • Debra said:

    You’re right on the first, because they admitted as much during the discussions in Modesto. Approving it would give police one more reason to arrest folks. Funny, though, how the one person with law enforcement experience on the Modesto council voted against it. I guess he’d seen enough to know that police have enough to do without making up new crimes.