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Copper thieves targeting businesses, schools in Long Beach

August 16, 2013|By Devin Kelly

A rise in the number of copper wire thefts in Long Beach prompted police to send a warning to local businesses this week.

Since January, at least 74 thefts of copper wire have been reported in the city, according to the Long Beach Police Department. Schools, city parks and commercial and private businesses are among the targets.

In a release Friday, the department suggested ways for businesses to combat the issue, including installing security alarms and surveillance cameras, securing electrical or utility boxes and checking vacant property regularly.

Police also released images and video surveillance footage of a recent theft in Coolidge Park in North Long Beach, where thieves removed a plate from the base of a pair of light poles and cut out the wiring. The suspects can be seen loading the wire into the trunk of a Cadillac De Ville.   

Within the Long Beach Unified School District, officials have seen about 15 thefts district-wide over the last two years, said Tom Hickman, school safety chief.

In some instances, students and teachers have arrived on campus to dark classrooms, the power cut by wire thieves.  

Several weeks ago, at Kettering Elementary School in east Long Beach, thieves cut the main power and pulled 300 feet of copper wire within 90 minutes, Hickman said. The repairs cost about $15,000.

The district has resorted to measures such as boosting police patrols, installing silent alarms and placing padlocks on electrical boxes. 

“It’s a frustrating thing – other than that, there’s not a lot you can do,” Hickman said, adding, “We’re trying not to make it easy for them.”

Elsewhere in the city, thieves have also targeted vacant buildings, spending a weekend ripping out drywall and pipes, police said.

Damage estimates vary, but replacement and repair costs often run into the thousands of dollars. If a thief removes the copper tubing from a businesses’ air conditioning unit, for example, the cost to fix the unit might run around $10,000. Fixing a cellphone tower generally costs between $5,000 and $7,000.

Two other recent instances of copper wire being stolen from light poles in city parks led to replacement costs of between $2,000 and $4,000 each. 

Authorities said the crime is difficult to trace and investigate. Catching suspects is tricky, and once copper wire arrives at a recycling yard, it’s virtually impossible to figure out where it came from, Woods said.

Through a DNA match, police have identified one suspect in connection with a commercial building theft earlier this year, but no arrests have yet been made.

Woods, who has been a burglary sergeant for three years, said this is the first time copper theft has surfaced as a major issue in Long Beach.  

But in California and across the nation, the problem has for years been recognized as a widespread issue for cities and communities. Between 2010 and 2012, metal theft increased nationally by 36%, according to an April report by the National Insurance Crime Bureau. California ranked fourth in metal theft insurance claims; Ohio ranked first.

Of the total number of claims, about 96% were copper-related, according to the report.

Copper wire theft began spiking in the years leading up to the recession, when prices per pound hit record highs, the report said. The price has fallen off in recent years, statistics show, but the metal still sells at a much higher level than it did a decade ago. 


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