Calgary

Copper thefts may drop if drug use, stolen goods sales are addressed, officer says

An Alberta police officer says the province could see fewer copper wire thefts if some changes are made.

Cpl. Curtis Peters says he'd like to see all scrap metal buyers required to ID sellers

Alberta RCMP are once again saying that the key to reducing expensive copper thefts means curbing drug use and the demand for the metal. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

An Alberta police officer says the province could see fewer copper wire thefts if some changes are made.

Every case of copper theft that Cpl. Curtis Peters has dealt with in his 13-year career involved someone using meth.

Now the criminal intelligence co-ordinator for southern Alberta RCMP, he says he sees plenty of evidence the two issues — meth use and copper theft — are intrinsically connected.

"The copper gets stolen, sold as scrap for recycling and then that money goes back towards purchasing methamphetamines to fuel addictions," Peters told the Calgary Eyeopener on Wednesday.

"This isn't a new phenomenon; it's been happening for for quite a while, and users know that it's a source of income."

Metal thievery is a "relatively steady" source of income and more people turn to it when the price of copper is high, he said. Right now, top quality copper sits around $3 a pound in Canada.

The damage caused by ripping cables out of buildings and the grounds can cost in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

It would help, Peters said, if scrap metal dealers collected the identifies of those who sell scrap copper. Many dealerships do track purchasing information by requiring sellers to present ID but they're not forced to by law.

'Plug the holes'

And thieves know which ones don't ID, according to Dave Quest, who once tried to make such a law in Alberta.

"If you don't plug the holes, it's the ones that don't do it, typically, where it's flowing through," the former MLA said. "You have to have something binding around all of it. The bad guys know where the other bad guys are, and that's where it goes."

The Alberta RCMP took this photo of clean copper wire earlier this year. Stealing copper wire can cause a lot of damage. (Alberta RCMP)

During the last term of the Progressive Conservative government, Quest's private member's bill passed, but when his party lost the 2015 election, the regulations to go along with it still hadn't been finalized.

So now years later, the Scrap Metal Dealers and Recyclers Identification Act sits unproclaimed and unenforceable.

Patchwork of rules

Only a handful of municipalities in the province, Calgary included, require that shops ID and save that information in case police need it for investigations.

An Alberta-wide law would help, Peters said, as most of the thefts happen in rural areas. Such a policy would reduce demand for stolen copper, he said.

"If we could turn down that demand in some fashion, whether through legislation or something like that, I think that might help to address it as well in the long term," Peters said.

This photo shows a truck load of stolen cut wire, Alberta RCMP says. (Alberta RCMP)

This week, RCMP announced they had arrested two men from Calgary, accused of causing $300,000 in damage to oilfield wells near the city. One of the men, when released on bail, then allegedly attempted to steal more copper from an industrial site near Parkland, north of Lethbridge.

Peters pointed out that people in Canada have a charter right to bail, and said that "the addiction can be a very powerful thing to fight."

The facts of these two cases are unknown as the accused have yet to be tried by a court. 

'Rat's nest' of damage

However, Peters said the situations prompted police to discuss the general problem, the extent of possible damage and the suspected link with meth trafficking.

"If we know this is tied to addiction, we have to find a way to address the addiction problem," Peters said. "We know it's tied to methamphetamines, so we have to work towards combating methamphetamine use or trafficking."

Cpl. Curtis Peters says thieves cut the connections to electrical boxes and other wires in order to steal copper. (Alberta RCMP)

Copper theft is a pricey crime, and may get more expensive for property owners, who are trying to make it more difficult to access the wire.

But if someone's motivated enough, Peters said, they'll find a way. Thieves can dig around buildings to pull out underground conduits and turn off electrical panels to rip into a building's walls.

"It kind of becomes quite a rat's nest," he said. "They can do a significant amount of damage."

In December, thieves targeted a leg of the C-Train line, throwing trains out of service for most of the day.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.

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