Police gather for copper theft seminar in Kennewick

By Tyler Richardson, Tri-City HeraldApril 3, 2013 

Fruits and vegetables are not the only cash crops coming from the Mid-Columbia's thousands of acres of farmland.

The rich agricultural fields are prime producers of stolen copper for drug-addicted metal thieves.

Police officers from across the state gathered at the Kennewick police station Wednesday for a one-day copper theft seminar that they hope helps combat the growing number of metal theft in the Tri-Cities.

Lt. Terence Alling from Metal Theft Training and Consultants of San Francisco led the intensive seminar, focused on teaching law enforcement officers to think like the opportunistic criminals they're trying to catch.

"They key to all of this is to get educated," Alling told the Herald during a break in the eight-hour seminar. "What you don't know, you don't know."

Alling is a federal officer who specializes in copper theft, which he said accounts for 96 percent of all metal thefts.

Alling has worked hundreds of copper theft cases and led a 2012 sting in the San Francisco Bay area that ended in the arrest of gang members accused of stealing more than $500,000 in copper.

He said agricultural fields in the Tri-City area make it a prime target. Thieves will raid crop fields in the middle of the night to take sprinkler heads and expensive metal from crop circles and cash in for a big payday.

"That's the big ticket," he said. "Sprinkler heads can run from $25 up to $300."

Alling focuses part of his class on teaching officers how to build relationships with scrap yard operators so they can get tipped off when large hauls are brought in and suspicious people try to scrap hunks of metal.

Alling said Washington has a "no buy" list and scrap yards can put anybody on the list they think might be stealing and reselling metal.

The Department of Energy estimates that copper thefts cost consumers more than $1 billion a year. They estimate that for every $100 a copper thief gets for some stolen copper, it costs utility companies $5,000 to repair.

The FBI has said the problem is so severe that copper thieves are threatening critical U.S. infrastructure.

Alling said it is one of the fastest-growing problems in the nation and something every law enforcement agency deals with almost daily.

Benton County Sheriff's Office Lt. Chuck Jones said metal theft in the Tri-Cities is a constant problem because it's so profitable for criminals.

"It's an element of people out there that don't conform to the standard way of life," he said. "They don't want jobs, and they are looking for a means to get money."

About 90 percent of all copper thefts are committed by methamphetamine users, Alling said.

Alling's class allows officers from different agencies the chance to network and set up systems to track thieves as they try to move the metal from county to county or even across state lines.

In most cases the thieves will strip or steal the metal and take it out of town to scrap it, he said.

In August 2012, investigators recovered over 100 tons of scrapped wire at a Pasco auto repair business. That investigation took detectives from Kennewick to Richland and then Pasco.

Alling, who teaches nationwide, already has taught six classes in Washington. He said the class will provide officers with the information they need to create taskforces, help keep important infrastructure in the community safe and identify scrapping rings.

"When they all leave here they are copper cops," Alling said. "They will be ready to take action."

-- Tyler Richardson: 582-1556; trichardson@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @Ty_richardson

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