Copper thefts continue to plague NE and Kansas City

Posted January 16, 2013 at 12:00 am

 By LESLIE COLLINS
Northeast News
January 16, 2013 

Copper. It’s a dirty word in Kansas City. It’s a word that causes area residents to roll their eyes and grimace as they count the number of homes and businesses plagued by copper thefts.

Concourse-frozen fountain-wide angle.tif

Frozen. Vandals damaged the main service entrance feeder at Concourse Park in December, causing the Concourse fountain to freeze. Thankfully, no permanent damage resulted. Leslie Collins

In the East Patrol Zone, reports of copper thefts are a daily occurrence, said Sgt. Keith Ericsson of the East Patrol Property Crimes Unit.

For the second time in three months, vandals ruined the main service entrance feeder at Concourse Park this past December, all in the name of copper and some extra cash. As a result, the lights went dark and the Concourse fountain froze. Thankfully, the fountain didn’t suffer permanent damage. Vandals attempted to remove the electrical wire to cash in on the scrap copper but were unsuccessful, said Parks and Recreation Maintenance Supervisor Pat McNamara.

“They cut it, so it’s worthless now,” McNamara said. “We had to remove it all and rewire.”

Recently, Parks and Recreation installed additional lighting at Concourse Park and switched the heads to LEDs, which create a brighter illumination. But it wasn’t enough to deter the vandals like Parks and Rec had hoped.

“This (copper thefts) is very prevalent. It’s going on all over the city. It’s been a sore spot for me,” McNamara said. “I’ve been telling people I could probably drop 20 percent of my workload if vandalism and theft didn’t happen.”

Parks and Recreation amenities that have been hit include baseball fields, football fields and community centers, among others.

“This is the second time (in recent months) they’ve hit a community center and killed the power to the community center,” he said.

The most recent incident involved the Southeast Community Center, which also serves as an area emergency shelter, he said.

Vandals stripped the electrical wire from stadium lights at Blue Valley Park last year near the end of baseball season and teams had to host their games elsewhere.

“It’s (lighting) actually dead right now,” McNamara said of Blue Valley Park. “They hit it again and I’m not going to fix it until baseball season comes back around.”

During a February 2012 City Council meeting, Kansas City’s Natural Resources Manager Forest Decker said the number of metal thefts from parks has increased tenfold since 2007, costing the department $815,000. Metal thefts have included copper wire, bronze plaques, brass fixtures in fountains, copper roofing, stainless steel grates, among other items, he said.

Asked what the allure of copper is, Ericsson said, “It’s just an easy way to make a few dollars.”

East Patrol Community Interaction Officer Jason Cooley added, “With the price of copper being up where it is, it’s been a problem for several years now. It’s very widespread and it’s not just a Kansas City problem. It’s a metrowide problem and a national problem. These guys, they just don’t care, anything to get that money.”

In the East Patrol Zone, copper thefts are more prevalent than in other zones due to the number of vacant homes and businesses, Ericsson said.

“There’s a lot more opportunity here than in some other zones in Kansas City,” Ericsson said. “As long as the price of copper is as high as it is, they’re going to keep doing it (vandalism).”

Vacant Kansas City Public Schools buildings continue to be a target for vandalism, Ericsson said. KCPS shuttered 30 of its schools in 2009 and 2010 as part of its right-sizing initiative to balance the budget. Three schools have been sold, one has been leased, but the remaining buildings are still awaiting a final sale. All of the former school buildings in Historic Northeast are still vacant and currently have no interested buyers.

“Schools have been a big problem because the water lines are a little bigger and the copper is a little thicker, so they get more money for it,” Ericsson said.

In December, vandals targeted the boiler room in one vacant school and cut a water line, resulting in gushing water. According to KCPS Director of Security Marcus Harris, the boiler room had one to two feet of standing water which damaged the flooring.

“The copper they’re taking out is not really worth that much, but to put the copper back in and repair the damage done, it’s really expensive,” Harris said. “The copper they get pales in comparison to what it actually costs us to replace it.”

Northeast News requested budget figures regarding the total cost of vandalism to vacant schools, but KCPS Repurposing Initiative Director Shannon Jaax was not available for comment.

Harris said KCPS deals with vandalism of its vacant buildings on a weekly basis, despite KCPS’ round-the-clock security patrols. However, thanks to the additional security, KCPS has caught several vandals in the act, Harris said.

To further stave off vandalism, KCPS is re-evaluating its board-up process and is considering leasing metal grade plates to cover doors and windows.

When Scarritt Renaissance Neighborhood Association President Leslie Caplan learned of the recent damage to Concourse Park, she was less than enthused.

“I was extremely frustrated and aggravated,” Caplan said. “It would be nice if they just let us have a peaceful existence. We want to enjoy our parks and we don’t want people stealing and wasting money having to replace all of that.”

A number of homes in the Scarritt Renaissance neighborhood have been stripped of copper, including the house next door to Caplan.

Next door, vandals ripped off decorate copper pieces from the front of the house and cased out the inside.

“This spring and summer, it was outrageous,” Caplan said of the copper thefts in Scarritt Renaissance. “They have stripped some of the most magnificent and beautiful mansions all for a few dollars worth of copper pipes and wires. They’ve taken out electrical wiring, they’ve taken out some of the architectural features, they’ve damaged an original 117-year-old marble sink just to take some of the plumbing fittings.”

Ericsson said vandals will also steal components from furnaces and air conditioning units and will damage interior walls and bathtubs to access copper pipes. Some of the houses are stripped days after a tenant leaves, he said.

“They get a few hundred dollars from a house with copper and they’re causing tens of thousands of dollars of damage sometimes,” Ericsson said. “We’re answering calls for burglaries that are non-violent in nature and our officers are going out and taking reports. That takes time out of their day where they can’t be answering priority calls or doing proactive work looking for violent criminals. It certainly is a stress on the department and it’s a stress on the community.”

Last year, KCPD worked with the City of Kansas City, Mo., to make several amendments to the city’s scrap metal ordinance. Amendments included requiring secondary metal recyclers to maintain an electronic database of each transaction, as well as a video or photo record of each transaction. Both the database and photo/video records are available to police and Regulated Industries. In addition, secondary metal recyclers can no longer accept items from a shopping or grocery cart. Certain items like utility access covers, HVAC components, catalytic converters, copper telecommunications wire of 25 pair or greater in certain gauges, among other items, can’t be accepted unless the seller provides verification that he or she is authorized to sell the item. Ericsson said the ordinance has helped to reduce the number of air conditioner thefts and telephone wire thefts, and East Patrol saw a “huge drop” in catalytic converter thefts. As for furnaces and pipes, there’s no regulation, he said.

KCPD is continuing to be proactive and meets regularly with area secondary metal recyclers to discuss trends and problems as well as solutions, he said.

To keep air conditioners safe from vandals, Ericsson recommends installing an anti-theft cage. Some cages even come equipped with alarms, he said.

“Keep your eyes out for your neighbors,” Ericsson added.

If residents notice something suspicious, they should call the police, he said. Residents should also take note of suspicious vehicles and write down a vehicle description.

“If we can get any kind of tip, we follow up on them all,” Ericsson said.