Sheriff Greg Champagne has stepped up his office’s efforts in recent weeks to combat copper theft in St. Charles Parish.
The problem has gotten so bad thieves actually broke into the Sheriff’s Office radio communications tower in Bayou Gauche and knocked it out of commission for a few hours after stripping it of copper.
"We know we have some amateur copper thieves, but there are also different degrees, for lack of a better word, professional copper thieves who go around looking for these opportunities," Champagne said. "So it is a problem nationwide, it is all over."
With the price of scrap copper fetching over $3.50 per pound at one point, Champagne said thieves have been relying more and more on copper theft as a source of revenue.
"It seems to have gotten worse in recent months," Champagne said. "The price of copper had gone up way high even though they are still buying it, it is going down now, but there still is a big problem all over."
Champagne said criminals have gone so far as to put themselves in harm’s way when trying to steal copper.
"There was a guy who even was electrocuted. He went into a substation somewhere and electrocuted himself," Champagne said.
Champagne said thieves target places where they know no one will be around.
"They will target businesses because nobody is at a business in the middle of the night," Champagne said. "It hasn’t been so much in homes when people are home, that hasn’t been a big problem. It’s been vacant property – businesses in the middle of the night, rental properties, property that is under construction, property that is under remodeling – those seem to be the targets."
In addition, Champagne said cell phone towers have lately been targeted because they are often in remote locations.
The Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office has gone so far as to encourage construction companies to install copper materials in properties as part of the final phase of construction. Champagne said he is beginning to tell contractors in St. Charles Parish to follow suit and even in some cases set up security cameras
"We’ve even notified builders. ‘Let us know when you put in the copper.’ They need to time that. You can’t just throw your copper in the wall and leave it wide open so they need to try to time it where they can lock up the property and let us know," Champagne said.
Champagne said one of the reasons the theft is so prevalent is that it only takes a short amount of time.
"With an AC unit with a pair of big snips, two guys and a pickup truck – a minute," Champagne said. "They could pull up and snip it and throw it in the back of the truck and be gone."
Champagne said another part of the problem is that scrap yards buy the salvaged copper for recycling.
"There are a lot of outlets that buy scrap metal and they have regulations. Some of them are very contentious about complying with the regulations, about recording who is selling the scrap and things like that, and some are loose and they are spread out pretty much throughout southeast Louisiana."
Champagne said he is in conversation with other local sheriffs on setting up a communications program concerning scrap yards that may be buying the stolen copper.
In this year’s legislative session, a law was passed that is meant to curb copper theft. Under the new law, criminals who are caught stealing copper will be charged with the amount of damage they caused in order to retrieve the copper rather than the scrap metal price of the copper alone. The application of the new law will make what was formerly a misdemeanor a felony with much harsher penalties for the thief.
"You’ve got a three, four or five thousand dollar unit and they’ve got $50 in copper and the victim has a thousand dollar bill for air conditioning units. So it’s a problem," Champagne said. "The law says they can be charged for the full value of what they destroyed to get it. Because they are really stealing that from the victim, that is the cost."
Recently, Champagne says his office was able to catch one of the parish’s more prolific copper thieves.
"He had stolen air conditioner units and we basically got into a pursuit with him at the latest one and he ditched his vehicle and fled on foot," Champagne said. "We went to his house and located some air conditioners there, luckily he hadn’t been able to destroy them yet, and we returned those to the victim. We had him ID’d so it took us about a week."
In addition to capturing that copper thief, the Sheriff’s Office also caught another thief stealing from a local business.
"We’ve had one incident since then and that was someone else who we caught in the act who went to a business on Highway 90, a restaurant, and took a unit again," Champagne said. "That was from the same place a unit had been taken before. A guy took it and they caught him in the act."
Now that his office has made a few arrests, Champagne expects the copper thefts to decrease. However, he warns residents to be on the lookout.
"Copper theft is a big problem. I put out a lot of alerts to people that if they see anybody tampering around any air conditioner at night, any home, any business, vacant properties, vacant homes, rental houses – those are the things that they are targeting so we’ve told people to call us if they see anything," Champagne said. "We are on the lookout for it too."