Hector Amezcua / hamezcua@sacbee.com

City worker Kent Anderson replaces cable last month after copper was stolen, part of a wave of thefts that have cost Sacramento about $900,000.

Sacramento strikes back at copper thieves

Published: Friday, Jun. 28, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Friday, Jun. 28, 2013 - 6:20 am

Copper crooks, beware: Sacramento is trying to pull the plug on wire theft.

To prevent a rising tide of copper theft from Sacramento streetlights, city employees will begin installing new wires with a unique stamp signifying them as city property.

The new wires, which will be put in throughout the city over the next few years, are a response to hundreds of wire thefts that resulted in 20,000 streetlight repairs during three years, costing the city an estimated $1.68 million.

"It was having such a devastating effect on the community," said Steve Harrold, Sacramento County's supervising deputy district attorney. "It was really outrageous."

At the height of the problem, police investigated three to five instances of wire theft per week, said Norm Colby, an operations general supervisor for the city.

"I'm happy to say that new cases of stolen wires have decreased to one each week," he said.

Copper wire theft has been a problem for about 10 years, but its increase during the last three years was likely prompted by higher demand for copper in countries like China and India, said Ken Leonard, a Sacramento police officer who leads the city's two-man metal task force.

By pulling up three or four copper wires that connect one light pole to the next, thieves can steal as much as 300 to 400 yards of wire from one pole every night, Leonard said.

"This is their job," Leonard said. "This is how they make their money."

The new stamp, which the supplier will put on the wire's insulation, is not a foolproof theft deterrent, but it allows police to arrest thieves if they are found carrying the material, said Michele Gigante, a spokeswoman for the Sacramento Police Department.

Sacramento police have identified 20 people who are suspected of copper wire theft, but they haven't made arrests because they don't have enough evidence, Leonard said. Police suspect half of the thieves are working together.

Sacramento County's crackdown on thefts includes installing new metal covers to replace the concrete ones that cover the wires, Colby said. The new covers are anchored and more difficult to break into than their concrete counterparts.

Sacramento's law enforcement officials say their efforts have helped curb the metal theft. Last year, 24 people were convicted for copper theft-related felonies, which are punishable by up to three years in prison. Metal thieves and the scrap yards that were buying the stolen material have been prosecuted, Harrold said.

"We thought it was important to go to the banks who bought this stuff," he said.

Call The Bee's Ben Mullin, (916) 321-1034.

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