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Long Beach police warn businesses about copper wire theft

A rise in the number of copper wire thefts prompts police to send a warning to businesses. Schools and parks have also been hit.

August 18, 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.

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.

The department suggested ways for businesses to prevent thefts, including installing security alarms and surveillance cameras, securing electrical or utility boxes and checking vacant property regularly.

Police also released 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 DeVille.

Within the Long Beach Unified School District, officials have seen about 15 thefts 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 boosted police patrols, installed silent alarms and placed padlocks on electrical boxes.

"It's a frustrating thing — other than that, there's not a lot you can do," Hickman said. "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. If a thief removes the copper tubing from a business' air conditioning unit, for example, the cost to fix it might run around $10,000. Fixing a cellphone tower generally costs between $5,000 and $7,000.

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 determine where it came from, said Long Beach police Sgt. Robert Woods.

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

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

But in California and across the nation, it's been a problem for years. 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, the report said.

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

devin.kelly@latimes.com

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