Precious Metal: Cops Crack Down on Copper Crooks

Local homebuilders, churches, cemeteries and even the Houston Police Department are the victims of the latest unusual crime wave to sweep the city. Copper thefts have increased dramatically over the past few years as prices for the metal have climbed. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, local authorities say they're ready to fight the copper crooks.

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It comes as no surprise to authorities that along with higher copper prices has come a new criminal enterprise, stripping and stealing just about any source of copper you can imagine, from wiring inside air conditioning units to the copper nozzles off of fire hoses.

"We have had one individual who stole railroad tracks and cut them up. It sounds incredible, but they did."

Vicki King is an assistant Houston Police Chief and says even an unused police department storage building was targeted by crooks for its copper wiring. Now, HPD is cracking down on copper thieves and scrap metal businesses that buy the stolen goods, sometimes for as much as $4 a pound. They've already made dozens of arrests this week and plan more in the coming days.

"No one is safe if we don't tighten things up and that is our intention. We want to serve notice to the public that the Houston Police Department takes these crimes seriously. We're willing to work with the business community to make sure that we can stop these types of thefts and we want to demonstrate that if you're a crook, we're going to catch you."

Houston mayor Bill White says he'll support a change in city ordinances that will tighten restrictions on scrap metal dealers and require better record-keeping on who is selling them copper.

"Who would have thought that the price of copper was worth more than the coins that are made of copper. Who would have thought that the price of copper would be so high that you have people dismantling air-conditioning systems, stealing piping, cannibalizing businesses and households, and yet that's what we've seen throughout America. In Houston, we're not waiting for the federal government to come the rescue. We're taking this matter into our own hands."

Officials say rampant copper thefts have an impact on the entire community, including homebuilders who have to completely re-wire new homes after thieves rip the copper out. City councilman Adrian Garcia says some builders refuse to do business here until the problem is addressed.

"I've had homebuilders that have said to me, councilman, I want to build new homes in your district, I want to build new homes across the city but we will not if the rate of copper and precious metals thefts is what it is in the city of Houston."

Authorities say many of the copper crimes in Houston are committed by organized gangs of thieves who operate boldly, sometimes stripping copper in broad daylight in busy areas.

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