HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

The price of copper, such as that in electrical cable, is high, making it a target for thieves. Sacramento officials say copper wire thefts of city property have been cut by 40 percent since 2011.

City of Sacramento turns tide against copper wire thefts

Published: Thursday, Jul. 25, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Thursday, Jul. 25, 2013 - 7:53 am

At the height of Sacramento's copper wire crime wave, entire city blocks were without streetlights for months.

Manhole covers went missing by the dozens. Water fountains were stolen. And a baseball park in North Sacramento was abandoned after wiring that powered the bathrooms and snack bar was ripped off.

After a costly effort, public works crews and a police task force in Sacramento are finally beginning to beat back a trend that City Manager John Shirey once called "an epidemic."

Copper wire thefts of city property have been cut by 40 percent since 2011, officials told the City Council on Tuesday. At the same time, the waiting period for city crews to repair damaged streetlights has dwindled, from a backlog of one year in many cases to 30 days.

The effort has come with a price tag: The city has spent $1.7 million in labor and materials costs since 2010.

Over that time, a staggering 20,670 streetlights have been damaged by copper wire thieves, Linda Tucker, city spokeswoman, told the council. Del Paso Heights, North Natomas and east Sacramento have been among the hardest-hit neighborhoods, according to city officials.

Beginning in 2011 – when a steep increase in the value of copper led to a spike in metal theft around the state and country – the city has responded to the crime wave on many fronts.

Steel pull-box lids are being installed on streetlights that have been damaged, and Tucker said those lids have proved to be theft-proof. A special Police Department metal task force was formed by Shirey. And the city has begun using copper wire stamped with a special label that alerts authorities who recover the stolen goods from suspected thieves that the wire is city property.

Tucker said Sacramento is the first city in the state to use the stamped copper wire.

"It gives (the police) new ways of nailing the suspects with serious charges," Tucker said.

According to a city staff report, an estimated 20 copper wire thieves have been arrested in recent months, and most have been charged with felony vandalism. Police said the stamped wire will help investigators build cases for more serious charges, including grand theft and burglary.

Streetlights aren't the only target of thieves. Councilman Steve Hansen said "we do have other things that disappear quite regularly," including manhole covers. And city officials reported last year that 50 water fountains had been ripped off by suspected metal thieves.

Still, much of the focus has been on the lights, given that damage to those structures plunged some blocks into darkness for months.

"When the lights are out, it makes people feel unsafe," Hansen said.

Call The Bee's Ryan Lillis, (916) 321-1085. Read his City Beat blog at sacbee.com/citybeat. Follow him on Twitter @ryan_lillis.

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