As Thieves Turn to Copper, Security Systems Follow

Sept. 4, 2007
Thefts turning epidemic; some victims turn to electronic systems for protection

Sep. 3--Outside the Rev. Andre Spivey's church is the aftermath: wires cased in padlocked boxes. Air conditioners surrounded by chain link and wrought iron fences. Motion detectors and sirens and strobe lights.

They're all meant to ward off the thieves who have hit St. Paul AME Church nine times in as many months.

The target? Copper from wires and air conditioners.

Industry experts -- from Detroit Edison security heads to area law-enforcement agencies -- say that suddenly, everything copper is at risk: Air conditioners, power lines, even the inner workings of fire hydrants.

Police and prosecutors say the sporadic copper thefts of the past have turned epidemic since this spring. That's likely because the price continues to rise and offers the temptation of fast cash for people trying to make a buck in a down economy. At $2.50 or more a pound, the copper taken from the church on Hunt Street in Detroit is valued in the thousands. So far, the losses have cost the church about $20,000 -- on top of the $40,000 its insurance company has paid for both the copper replacement and repairs.

"I knew that pastoring in the city would be a challenge," Spivey said. "But I thought it'd be about revitalizing the city and drawing people in. I never thought it'd be to protect us from copper thieves."

National epidemic

While other scrap metal also is stolen, copper is the gold standard, selling for some four times the 60 cents a pound aluminum gets. The problem is nationwide.

And it's a major concern for law enforcement officials.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said thefts from utility poles could knock out power lines to hospitals or wipe out communication systems, causing 911 calls to go unanswered, for instance.

"This is a homeland security issue as far as I'm concerned," Worthy said.

Wayne County is working with DTE and AT&T in hopes of getting the companies to pony up money to pay for an assistant prosecutor and investigator to focus on the thefts.

That will carry a price tag of about $250,000.

Though the problem extends beyond Detroit, industry experts say the city ranks alongside cities such as Dallas and Houston as being the hardest hit. In Houston police require scrap metal sellers to report their sales, their addresses and their identification and license plate numbers. The dealers and purchasers -- typically scrap metal yards that sell to home developers and manufacturers -- also have to provide identification info.

In metro Detroit, law enforcement agencies are trying to crack down, seeking laws to punish the people who steal and the scrap yards that buy the metal. Most currently are charged with misdemeanors, which often lead to fines and probation.

Last year, the Detroit City Council voted to force scrap metal dealers to buy from middlemen licensed to sell the metal. Meanwhile, state legislation aims to enforce tougher penalties -- up to 2 years in prison or a $5,000 fine -- to those selling second-hand copper wire without the original owner's consent.

Still, thieves are hard to catch, said Detroit Police spokesman James Tate. Worthy said she'd like to see repeat offenders punished with more than misdemeanor charges and tougher sentences imposed by judges.

Most houses safe

Police in metro Detroit municipalities such as Southfield have asked residents to keep watch over their neighbors' houses. In Grosse Pointe Park, they've been urged to call 911 if they see a copper thief in action.

Save for the winter snowbirds, most residents don't have to worry about their homes being hit, because thieves tend to target abandoned homes, new constructions and properties being renovated.

Some Detroit thieves are stripping even live utility wires. At least six people have died, said Michael Lynch, DTE's chief security officer. Detroit police have formed a task force to track down thieves, though it's tough to catch them unless they're in the act.

Even DTE has been hit. Copper thieves broke into a fenced service center that stored wire 38 times in the span of seven months, Lynch said. The company finally replaced the chain link fence with a solid, corrugated one.

The cost to enhance security ultimately will translate into higher costs for customers, Lynch said.

Homes being sold are a major target, said Sherri Saad, a real estate agent with ReMax Prestige of Dearborn Heights.

One Detroit home she was selling had a lock box on the door, so the thieves removed the entire doorknob to get in, she said.

"They stole all the plumbing and the whole furnace," she said. "They're getting their hands on everything they can get."

Spreading losses

The thefts cost homeowners and, in Spivey's case, church congregation members who've donated money to help offset the church's out-of-pocket costs. That money goes to fixing the domino-effect problems the thefts cause -- such as security guards for when the power was cut, downing the alarm systems and leaving the commercial air conditioning units vulnerable.

The loss of power also caused food in the refrigerator and freezer to spoil.

"I'm concerned if we go to our insurance company one more time, they'll deny us or drop us entirely," Spivey said.

Spivey's next plan is to install a surveillance camera.

"We've been OK for the last ... well, only three weeks," he said, palms pressed together as if in prayer.

"I'll keep my fingers crossed."