Tucson and Pima County copper crooks less active as prices drop

2014-05-29T00:00:00Z Tucson and Pima County copper crooks less active as prices dropBy Becky Pallack Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

The drop in copper prices hasn’t stopped the illegal metal trade, but Southern Arizona is seeing a slowdown in the volume of metal thefts.

Local agencies are increasing security measures, said city spokesman Michael Graham. 

“We’re not getting hit as hard,” he said, “but in the past several years we’ve taken a big hit.”

Last year the cost to the city was several hundred thousand dollars, said Amber Smith, executive director of the Metropolitan Pima Alliance. 

BIG COST TO TAXPAYERS

Copper electrical wires, aluminum signs, steel barrier cables, brass sewer covers, even bronze memorial plaques — you name it, crooks have stolen it.

“They get pennies on the dollar, and it’s costing us thousands in repairs,” said George Kuck, of the Pima County parks department. 

It cost $50,000 to replace and repair wiring at the Rillito Park Racetrack. It cost $80,000 to install lockable boxes on electrical systems for athletic field lights at parks.

Kuck hasn’t tried to add up the many cases, but he said metal theft has easily cost taxpayers a couple hundred thousand dollars in recent years. And that’s just one county department.

Preventive measures are slowing thieves, but metal theft continues to be a big problem, Kuck said, and county staff electricians still have a backlog of work orders.

THEFTS GONE BAD

At least two metal thieves have been killed or severely injured.

Tucson Electric Power crews found a man’s dead body next to a pair of bolt cutters in an underground electrical box on the east side earlier this month. While there’s no way to know for sure what his intentions were, the man may have died while trying to steal wiring. The Pima County Sheriff’s Department investigated the death and the County Medical Examiner’s Office is trying to identify the body.

Last August, a man who was trying to steal copper wire from a power pole in Wellton survived life-threatening burns and injuries from an electrical shock. “He was being investigated on numerous other scrap-metal theft cases,” said Yuma County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Alfonso Zavala. 

IMPACT ON BUSINESS

There were 824 copper theft insurance claims statewide from 2011 through 2013, new figures from the National Insurance Crime Bureau show. 

But most businesses that are victims of copper theft are dealing with the costs on their own for fear their insurance rates will increase, Smith said.

The Metropolitan Pima Alliance started a metal-theft task force two years ago with about 100 local businesses to educate the community and government officials about the problem. Improved awareness and better reporting helps police, Smith said.

The task force helped pass state laws that make penalties harsher for scrap-metal buyers who knowingly take in stolen metal.

The alliance estimates the damages from metal theft at more than $120 million statewide.

Contact Pallack at bpallack@azstarnet.com or 573-4251. On Twitter @BeckyPallack

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