Crime & Courts

Wichita officials weigh revising scrap-metal ordinance to fight copper thefts

A bin of number one copper tubing at AllMetal Recycling. This particular type of tubing is used a lot in household plumbing. The city of Wichita is planning on implementing a new scrap ordinance to deter theft. (June 20, 2013)
A bin of number one copper tubing at AllMetal Recycling. This particular type of tubing is used a lot in household plumbing. The city of Wichita is planning on implementing a new scrap ordinance to deter theft. (June 20, 2013) The Wichita Eagle

City officials and the Wichita Police Department are looking into revising the scrap metal ordinance designed to curb thefts of copper and other metals.

Primarily, the revised ordinance will classify copper as a specially regulated metal, like tungsten carbide, and require scrap dealers to hold the copper for 72 hours.

Those hours are expected to give police enough time assign a detective if a theft is reported and to look at the daily inventories sent to the department from scrap processors, said Detective Aaron Harrison, who leads the department’s metal theft investigations. If the copper is held for that time, he said, the police have a better opportunity to track the metal back to the thief or victim.

The ordinance, meant to deal with an increase in copper thefts, is expected to be brought to the City Council by early fall at the latest.

The new ordinance will also allow the chief of police to suspend a business’ operations for one day or more, similar to how suspensions are issued for liquor violations. Today, if a scrap processing violation occurs, the case has to be brought before the City Council for a hearing.

Scrap metal owners have mixed reactions to the possible new ordinance. Alan Boge, owner of Boge Iron and Metal Co. and one of Wichita’s 19 licensed scrap dealers, said more regulations on dealers won’t stop the thefts.

“It creates a terrible logistics problem,” Boge said. “The problem is not more regulations – the police need to have more staff to chase them (the thieves) down.”

Boge said the difficult part is determining whether the metal is stolen.

“How can I tell which ones are stolen or not?” Boge said as he pointed to a stack of condensing units, which all looked alike.

The problem isn’t easy to solve, Boge and Harrison admitted. Boge said he will turn customers away if he has suspicions about the metal, such as when a customer has no EPA license or simply has a trunk full of miscellaneous copper from telephone poles or air conditioners.

Doug Harding, general manager of AllMetal Recycling, says scrap dealers want to do all they can to help the city stop thefts. He said if his company knows the metal is stolen, it won’t do business with the customer.

“We have to push forward to figure out a solution,” Harding said. “We have to be the ones to say, ‘No more, and here’s what we’re going to do to stop the thefts.’ ”

Harding said if it means more regulations for him, then he is willing to do it if it helps cut down on thefts.

Current loopholes

The ordinance in place now, which was implemented in 2010, requires the scrap dealer to take down a seller’s identification, their license plate and address, and a statement saying the metal is their property, or if it is not, that the metal is not stolen.

In addition, people selling air-conditioning units – a popular item for thieves because of the amount of copper inside – are required to have an Environmental Protection Association tag saying the unit has been safely removed.

The tag was meant to help stop the thefts, which it did for awhile, until some dealers found a way around the requirement, Harrison said.

“Some scrap yards began to just pass out the tags and found a way to circumvent the ordinance,” Harrison said. “After that became prevalent in the industry, then the thefts picked right back up to where they were before.”

Air-conditioner thefts have been on the rise lately. Since April, 36 have been reported in the Patrol East Bureau alone.

Copper’s value

With copper thefts, the damage to the property is usually more than the copper is actually worth.

As of June 20, No.1 copper – copper that has no contaminants – was selling for $2.65 a pound. The person selling the copper usually gets anywhere from $20 to $40 on an average sale, Boge said.

Council member Lavonta Williams said she was pleased to hear the current ordinance is being looked at again.

“Copper thefts are being brought to our attention on a more regular basis now,” Williams said. “We need to look at the problem from both sides.”

Boge said his suggestion would be to increase the enforcement side of the problem and assign more police. He thinks the thefts are a low priority.

“Ninety-five percent of the business the scrap dealers do is honest business,” he said. “Sometimes you get fooled, but not very often.”

The problem with assigning more staff to investigate the thefts comes down to budget restrictions, Williams said. For example, the city is down to six or seven inspectors for code violations for each council district, each of which has about 60,000 residents, she said.

Cost to property owners

Om Chauhan, who said he owns about 70 properties around Wichita, said he has to deal with a copper theft about once a month.

He said the copper thefts’ effect is twofold for him – he has to replace the stolen copper, and he loses money on the property.

“It takes a significant toll on me,” Chauhan said. “Not only the loss of the copper, I have to spend several thousand dollars to restore it, but there’s also added time the property is vacant.”

Chauhan said he hasn’t heard of any successful prosecutions from the thefts he has reported. The only time he knows of someone being caught stealing from one of his properties was when he walked in on the thief in the process of stealing the copper. Sometimes he said he doesn’t even feel like reporting the thefts.

He said he thinks the problem with the ordinance now is that it lacks procedures for enforcement.

“Unless we aggressively enforce what we ask the council to give us, then it’s just a piece of paper,” he said.