No wire is safe as a spike in copper prices spurs wave of thefts
DETROIT -- There's a mighty fortress look to St. Paul's AME Church, but appearances have provided no bulwark against thieves stripping copper tubing from the church's air conditioning units and ripping off electrical wires. Vandals have hit the o...
DETROIT -- There's a mighty fortress look to St. Paul's AME Church, but appearances have provided no bulwark against thieves stripping copper tubing from the church's air conditioning units and ripping off electrical wires. Vandals have hit the old red brick church on the city's near east side nine times in nine months.
In cities and towns across the nation it's open season on homes, businesses, churches, construction sites, power generating stations -- just about anything with copper plumbing, wiring or downspouts. They're even cutting down utility poles to get at the wires and knocking off fire hydrants for the copper piping.
The soaring price of scrap metal has fueled a burgeoning wave of vandalism that has disrupted power supplies and, in Detroit, left at least a half dozen people dead while trying to steal copper wires for a few hundred dollars.
Unlike murder sprees or illegal drug activity that often thrive primarily in troubled inner cities, the phenomenon of copper thefts shows no geographic or demographic preference. What began as an occasional police blotter item in the local weekly last year now is considered a national epidemic.
"I've been around the block for 45 years in law enforcement, and I never would have thought you'd experience a crime wave of copper thieves," said William Dwyer, police chief in the affluent northwestern Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills and a former narcotics division chief with the Detroit Police Department.
Dwyer said thieves target air conditioning units in newly constructed homes. Some are actually stealing entire air conditioners, he added, noting, "I see this problem increasing."
The price of copper, due in part to China's voracious appetite for the metal, has leaped by nearly 60 percent since February and is crowding $4 a pound. Five years ago it was trading at under $1 a pound. With copper in plain public sight, there is a powerful economic incentive for some to steal it and cash in at scrap metal dealers.
"It's like money out there, just lying around. That's how the bad guys look at it," said Bill Gainer, director of government relations for AT&T Inc. in Chicago.
Dallas police recorded more than 1,500 cases of metal theft through mid-September, a 50 percent increase over all of last year. In Council Bluffs, Iowa, thieves stole four tons of copper wire from a construction lot. And the state of Hawaii recently made copper theft a felony.
The Rev. Andre Spivey, pastor of St. Paul's in Detroit, said his church's problem started last November, when someone cut through a fence surrounding air conditioners and stole one of them. "Then they took the second one," Spivey said. "Sometimes they just took wires."
With the help of insurance money, the cooling units around St. Paul's now have a higher fence with wire roofing, sensors and a siren.
Gainer said the problem will not be solved until scrap dealers know this is a serious crime and that they can be held liable.
"The way it is now," Gainer said, "someone can take wires to a scrap dealer and get 20-to-30 bucks, and it costs us $25,000 to $30,000 to put it all back together again. ... It's a problem that's getting worse."