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Metal Thieves Are Stripping America’s Cities

USMetal Thieves Are Stripping America’s Cities


The 6th Street Bridge in Los Angeles is wired to glow with colorful lights celebrating the city’s spirit. But the bridge, known as the “Ribbon of Light,” goes dark at night now. So do stretches of the busy 405 freeway and dozens of street blocks across the city.

In St. Paul, Minn., a man was recently hit by a car and killed while crossing a street near his home where streetlights had gone out.

And in Las Vegas and surrounding communities, more than 970,000 feet of electrical wiring, the equivalent of 184 miles, have gone missing from streetlights over the past two years.

The lights are going out across American cities, as a result of a brazen and opportunistic type of crime. Thieves have been stripping copper wire out of thousands of streetlights and selling it to scrap metal recyclers for cash. The wiring typically fetches only a few hundred dollars, but blacked-out lights pose safety hazards to drivers and pedestrians, and are costing cities millions to repair.

Metal theft has been an urban plague for decades, often rising alongside commodity prices. But the combination of the economic ills and social malaise lingering since the pandemic and soaring demand for metals, especially for copper, has brought this street crime to new levels.

Some theft involves elements of essential city infrastructure and even public artwork that once seemed immovable. Across Los Angeles County, more than 290 fire hydrants have gone missing since January.

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

Other theft hits personally. At the Lincoln Memorial Park Cemetery in Carson, Calif., next to Compton, someone stole nameplates off the mausoleum and a commemorative plaque dedicated by the boxer Joe Louis, according to Aisha Woods, who volunteers to maintain the cemetery. Thieves even stole the metal pipe that is used to water the lawn.

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

In Los Angeles City Council member Kevin de León’s district, which includes downtown, there were 6,900 cases of copper wire theft in the last fiscal year, up from just 600 cases five years ago. He said that some of the theft involved sophisticated criminal enterprises that recruit people struggling with addiction to do the stealing in exchange for drugs.

“There are huge parts of the city that have been left in the dark,’’ said Mr. de Leon, who recently started a task force to address metal theft.

Mr. de León said he has begun taking pre-emptive steps, including removing public statutes and putting them in storage, including one that was a gift from the Mexican state of Veracruz. He made this decision after someone had tried to saw into the ankles of a statue at a park in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood.

The Los Angeles Bureau of Street Lighting was unable to provide the total number of outages caused by wire theft among the 225,000 streetlights it operates city wide. In a statement, a spokesperson for the bureau said wire theft began increasing just before the pandemic, “with the most dramatic increases happening in recent years.”

The thefts come amid a 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 giant new data centers powering artificial intelligence and other technology.

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

There will be an estimated global shortage of as much as 10 million tons of copper over the next two years, Mr. Valluru said. But developing new copper mines can take a decade or more, making scrap copper more valuable.

During the early part of the pandemic, many recycling facilities shut down, disrupting the supply of scrap metal. At around the same time, demand for metals increased, as the Biden Administration began funneling billions into the construction of huge infrastructure projects.

It became a boom time for metal thieves. The catalytic converters in cars, which contain valuable metals like platinum and palladium, have been a frequent target.

In interviews, elected officials and police officers across the country said that they did not recall public property like bridges, telecommunication cables and hydrants attracting such bold thefts.

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

St. Paul’s streetlights have been popular with wire thieves. For safety reasons, many of the lamp poles are hollow so they can break off easily when hit by a car. That allows thieves to easily cut into them or pry open a small panel at the base to extract the wire.

Melvin Carter, the mayor of St. Paul, says he notices how many of the streetlights are out when he does his nightly jog around the Minnesota capital.

“The moment we fix them, people come back and snatch them up again,” Mr. Carter said.

In late April, six people were charged in connection with an effort to steal thousands of pounds of copper wire across St. Paul. One member of this wire “cutting crew” had collected $12,169 from recyclers between November 2023 and January, according to a police report.

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

Ms. Nutting said it was possible that thieves stole the necessary tool from a utility 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 taken at a time, Ms. Nutting said.

Scrap companies in numerous cities have told the police that they screen people who bring them material, requiring them to show ID and recording their purchases. But stolen material is still finding buyers.

Last Month, Governor Walz signed a new law that will require people selling copper scrap metal in Minnesota to obtain a license from the state and to attest that the material was obtained legally. The state has a similar law regulating the sale of catalytic converters to recyclers.

Some Los Angeles officials have urged the city to focus on prosecuting the scrap companies purchasing the stolen material, not the people stealing the wiring who are more likely to be 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, has been investigating the scrap companies, not just the street-level thieves. His office expects the task force to announce several arrests later this month.

Still the problems persist. Late last month, thieves struck the Lincoln cemetery again. Someone stole additional metal nameplates on the mausoleum and broke off the doors to the its chamber, where people are interred. Ms. 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,” said Mr. de León. “But when you are stealing markers from graves, that is a new low.”



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