Thieves Go After Valuable Copper Streetlight Wires

The crooks are after copper... and now the coppers are after the crooks. Copper prices are soaring, and that's inspired a wave of copper wiring thefts from streetlights in Los Angeles. KPCC's Brian Watt has more.

Brian Watt: Los Angeles has more than 200,000 streetlights. They're connected by a network of copper wires that electricians can reach through pull boxes in the ground. Ed Ebrahimian, who runs L.A.'s Bureau of Street Lighting, says thieves can get into those boxes, too... and when they do, they steal the wire.

Ed Ebrahimian: They come to the pull boxes, they open the lid. They disconnect the wires. They go to the other pull box over, the next one over, and they open the lid over there and they disconnect the wire over there also. And then they pull from one side, and they pull the whole wire out.

Watt: Ebrahimian says over the last five months, thieves have made off with about 72 miles of copper wiring. Along one stretch of the Los Angeles River Bike Path, streetlight electrician Jack Pettigrew says the wiring has now gone missing twice.

Jack Pettigrew: From the 134 Freeway up by Victory and Riverside Drive, all the way down to Fletcher Drive, almost all that cable's gone now. I've replaced it. They've got in and stole it again after it was sealed.

Watt: At today's super-charged prices, 72 miles of copper wiring costs about $200,000. Throw in the labor by guys like Jack Pettigrew, and L.A.'s replacement tab is about a million dollars. But that's just the money problem.

Earl Thomas: When copper wires are stolen, the lights go off. It attracts criminals. It endangers our citizens.

Watt: That's Earl Thomas, a deputy chief in the L.A. City Attorney's office.

Thomas: We must prevent this theft and have those lights. Because when you have lights on, the criminals scurry away like roaches.

Watt: Streetlights have also gone off in parts of Echo Park, Boyle Heights, Harbor City, and Wilmington. The City Council members from those areas have called for a task force on the problem. Councilman Jose Huizar of East L.A. says the phones in his field office are lit up over lights out.

Councilman Jose Huizar: A lot of the people calling are seniors who take their strolls down certain blocks, who've been taking these strolls for years. And now the lights are out, so this increases the chance of crimes being committed against these seniors.

Watt: The police want anyone who sees something fishy around pull boxes near streetlights to call 911 right away.