Individually, the theft of copper wiring and piping from homes and businesses in Baltimore County usually amounts to little more than stealing a few dollars worth of metal.
But, a closer examination of the issue finds the economic impact far worse, Baltimore County police chief Jim Johnson said. Destruction of property, business hours lost and a heightened sense of vulnerability make copper thefts one of the fastest growing problems facing the community, he added.
This is why Johnson announced Monday the formation of the region's first law enforcement team dedicated to the growing problem of metals theft. The chief made the announcement at a news conference at BGE's White Marsh Learning Center to highlight the issue, as the utility is a constant target of copper thefts at construction sites and substations.
“We’re talking about millions in dollars lost,” Johnson said. “Copper thefts are not the type of trend that grabs headlines but it is incredibly destructive.”
Johnson said he would be assigning four officers who will be dedicated to metal theft investigations. The chief added that copper thefts are up 450 percent since 2009 with 73 reported metal thefts that year compared to 339 in 2011. Vacant homes, homes under construction, radio towers and train tracks are among the most common targets.
He added that the new task force would monitor regional scrap metal theft trends, network with other law enforcement and corporate entities and develop relationships with local scrap recyclers as part of this initiative.
Baltimore County police Cpl. Morgan Hassler, a detective who specializes in such cases, said the sluggish economy, a skyrocketing value of copper and other metals, along with a spike in vacant and/or foreclosed properties are all reasons for the spike in metal thefts.
“No one visits these sites regularly, so in many cases you don’t know if the crime occurred today or five months ago,” Hassler said.
But, Hassler said the county has had some success in making arrests of suspected chronic offenders. For instance, Derrick Wingate— who is alleged to have committed 47 home burglaries in Pikesville and Woodlawn along the Liberty Road corridor between Dec. 11 and April 30—is awaiting trial in both Baltimore County and City on theft charges.
In another case, police arrested a pair of men who were linked to 32 in the Essex-Middle River area in late 2010. During those incidents more than $110,000 in damage was done, according to police records.
“Home burglaries, like the stealing of copper coils from air conditioners, is a prime example of where the impact of the crime is greater than the items stolen,” Hassler said. “While the thief may only get a couple of dollars from the copper coils, the owner will have to spend hundreds to repair the air conditioner.”
Johnson and Hassler said what makes investigating such crimes particularly difficult is that metals have few identifiers. The stolen metal is difficult to trace and often is sold to scrap dealers mixed in with legitimately obtained metals. Also, people often don’t report the thefts because they appear minor and victims don’t understand the larger picture of the issue.
Hassler said Baltimore County’s 10 scrap recyclers handle about 12,000 transactions a month while Baltimore City’s 13 scrap recyclers handle an average of 15,000 transactions per month. The large numbers of transactions also make tracking thefts difficult, Johnson added.
“Unlike violent crime, where there are a relatively few number of people committing most of the crime, there are significantly more people who on a full-time or an occasional basis steal metals,” Johnson said.
BGE officials said they are working with local police agencies to better get a handle on the depth of the crime trend. The utility is going as far as painting its copper wiring green as a way of better tracking their supplies if they are stolen.
BGE president Ken DeFontes said that the utility is also working with state and local lawmakers on developing legislation to increase criminal penalties on metal thefts.
“We support any initiative that will help deter metal thefts,” he said.