Metal thieves plunder American cities

Los Angeles’ 6th Street Bridge is wired to glow with colorful lights that celebrate the city’s spirit. But the bridge, known as the “Ribbon of Light,” goes dark at night. So do parts of the busy 405 Freeway and dozens of city blocks.

In St. Paul, Minnesota, a man was recently struck by a car and killed while crossing a street near his home when the streetlights were out.

And in Las Vegas and surrounding communities, more than 970,000 feet of electrical wiring, the equivalent of 184 miles, have disappeared. of street lighting in the past two years.

Lights are going out in American cities, the result of a brazen and opportunistic form of crime. Thieves have stripped copper wire from thousands of streetlights and sold it to scrap recyclers for cash. The wires typically only fetch a few hundred dollars, but broken lights pose a safety hazard to drivers and pedestrians and cost cities millions to repair.

Metal theft has been an urban scourge for decades, often rising with commodity prices. But the combination of the economic and social ills that have persisted since the pandemic and the rising demand for metals, particularly copper, has taken this street crime to new heights.

Some thefts involve elements of essential city infrastructure and even public works of art that once seemed immobile. In Los Angeles County, more than 290 fire hydrants have disappeared since January.

And in Denver this winter, two men were arrested for removing bronze artwork from a Martin Luther King Jr. monument, causing about $85,000 in damage. Police said the two men were paid $394 for the metal, which was recovered from a local scrap yard.

Other thefts hit me personally. At Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery in Carson, California, near Compton, someone stole nameplates from the mausoleum and a plaque dedicated by boxer Joe Louis, according to Aisha Woods, who volunteers at the cemetery. Thieves even stole the metal pipe used to water the lawn.

Lincoln Cemetery was founded by African Americans in the early 20th century, when they were not welcome in many other cemeteries, said Ms. Woods, whose mother is buried there. The thefts have upset many who visit the graves, Ms. Woods said. “It’s like opening a new wound,” she said. “It’s disrespectful to sacred grounds.”

In Los Angeles City Councilman Kevin de León’s district, which includes downtown, there were 6,900 cases of copper wire thefts in the last fiscal year, compared with just 600 cases five years ago. He said some of the thefts involved sophisticated criminal enterprises that recruit people with addictions to commit the thefts in exchange for drugs.

“There are large parts of the city that have been left in darkness,” said Mr De Leon, who recently set up a task force to tackle metal theft.

Mr. de León said he has taken preventive measures, including removing and storing public statues, including one that was a gift from the Mexican state of Veracruz, after someone tried to saw off the ankles of a statue in a park in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood.

The Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting could not provide the total number of outages caused by wire theft among the 225,000 streetlights it operates citywide. In a statement, a bureau spokesperson said wire theft began increasing just before the pandemic, “with the most dramatic increases in recent years.”

The thefts come amid feverish demand for copper and other metals. Copper in particular is at the heart of the evolving economy — a key component of battery-powered cars, modern electrical grids and the massive new data centers that power artificial intelligence and other technologies.

“The world can’t get enough copper,” said Karthik Valluru, global leader of Boston Consulting Group’s materials and process industries sector. “It’s the most important metal when it comes to the energy transition.”

There is an estimated global shortage of as much as 10 million tonnes of copper in the next two years, Mr Valluru said. But developing new copper mines could take a decade or more, making scrap copper more valuable.

At the start of the pandemic, many recycling facilities closed, disrupting the supply of scrap metal. Around the same time, demand for metals increased as the Biden administration began pouring billions into building massive infrastructure projects.

It was a golden age for metal thieves. Catalytic converters in cars, which contain valuable metals such as platinum and palladium, are often targeted.

In interviews, elected officials and police officers across the country said they had not recalled public property such as bridges, telecommunications cables and fire hydrants that invited such brazen thefts.

“It seemed like a quaint little issue when it first came up,” Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said in an interview. “But it’s costly and destructive.”

St. Paul’s streetlights are popular with wire thieves. For security reasons, many of the lampposts are hollow, so they can easily break off if hit by a car. This allows thieves to easily cut into them or pry open a small panel at the base to remove the wire.

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter says that during his evening jog through Minnesota’s capital city, he notices how many streetlights are out of order.

“Once we get them fixed, people come back and take them back,” Carter said.

End of April, Six people were charged in connection with an attempt to steal thousands of pounds of copper wire in St. Paul. A member of this wire “cutting crew” collected $12,169 from recyclers between November 2023 and January 2023, according to a police report.

Many of the metal thefts require a certain level of expertise. Some people targeting fire hydrants in communities south of Los Angeles appear to have used a tool that allowed them to turn off the water before removing the hydrant, said Kate Nutting, general manager of the southwest region for the Golden State Water Company, which operates the hydrants.

Ms. Nutting said it was possible thieves stole the necessary tools from a utility company’s maintenance truck. The hydrants, which weigh about 100 pounds each and are made largely of iron, cost $4,000 each to replace. In some neighborhoods, as many as 10 hydrants have been stolen at once, Ms. Nutting said.

Scrap yards in numerous cities have told police they screen people who bring them material, asking for ID and recording their purchases. But stolen material still finds buyers.

Last month, Governor Walz signed a new law requiring people selling copper scrap in Minnesota to obtain a state permit and certify that the material was obtained legally. The state has a similar law regulating the sale of catalytic converters to recyclers.

Some officials from Los Angeles have called on the city to focus on prosecuting the scrap dealers who buy the stolen material, rather than the people who steal the wiring, who are likely living in poverty and desperate for money.

Mr. de León said the metal theft task force, which includes officers from the Los Angeles Police Department, is investigating the scrap metal businesses, not just the street thieves. His office expects the task force to announce more arrests later this month.

The problems continue. Late last month, thieves struck again at Lincoln Cemetery. Someone stole extra metal nameplates from the mausoleum and broke down the doors to the chamber where people are buried. Mrs. Woods, the volunteer groundskeeper, used plastic bags and tape to cover the openings to the chambers.

“They used to say there was honor among thieves,” Mr. de León said. “But when you steal gravestones, that’s a new low.”

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