LOCKPORT, N.Y. (WIVB) - Throughout western New York, Judge Richard Kloch says, "copper theft is on the rise, markedly and alarmingly."
From idle air conditioners to to live wires, thieves are risking their lives throughout the region. They're stealing copper to make some green. Judge Kloch says enough is enough.
"To people in front of me, if you're going to plea to a copper theft, you're going to jail. Plain and simple. You steal copper, you plead guilty, I'm going to have to put you in jail."
Research shows these crimes have become crimes of opportunity. Lockport Police Chief Lawrence Eggert says any home or business may be vulnerable.
"We don't protect the infrastructure of our buildings because we never had to before. All of our electric services are all exposed on the back sides of buildings, which are perfect for burglars," Eggert says.
Burglars broke into a locked meter and cut the main power source for two buildings in Lockport Plaza, in April.
"If you can imagine a wire being 2-to-3 inches in diameter, the amount of power that carries...they're using bolt cutters to snip off live electrical lines, it's just amazing that no one is dead," Eggert told News 4.
Those crooks are still on the run.
Also on the run are the thieves who hit the historic Palace Theatre in downtown Lockport, earlier this year. At the Palace, thieves mangled the air conditioners in search of copper. They left the huge units unusable and the theatre reeling.
Eggert says, it's tough police work because there are no witnesses.
"There are no surveillance cameras generally in the back sides of buildings. There are no cameras in abandoned buildings or houses. Once you take the shielding off the copper it just becomes metal that you chop up. It's difficult for the scrap yards to even determine if its stolen," Eggert explained.
Police, however, are fighting back. They're working in tandem with junk yards and providing names and pictures of those who are suspected of copper theft. Police are hopeful scrap yards will catch thieves in the act.
Todd Levin owns Niagara Metals in Niagara Falls.
"People know when they come here, they have to give their ID. We take pictures of the material, so [we] like most of our competitors are doing the right thing," Levin said.
But others are not. In the City of Buffalo, someone swiped a dozen sewer grates in late March. Police made arrests in that case, Police Chief Anthony Barba is taking the problem head on.
"We made sure all the scrap yards in my district were aware that if we catch them with anything that's illegal, we're going to close them down," Barba said.
Levin and other local trade workers lobbied for a law, increasing the penalties for those who sell and buy stolen scrap. Through some digging, News 4 has learned Senator Mark Grisanti took notice.
Grisanti has introduced Bill S6971. The law would force scrap processors to record the purchase of metal worth $50 or more. The sellers name would be recorded with their address. The scrap yard would also have to keep those records for three years.
Under Grisanti's law, it's also mandated that scrap yards install video recording systems at all scales and points of sale.
Levin is already using that system.
"I would think that would be a huge deterrent for people that are doing the crime," Levin said.
Grisanti's bill would also force jail time. But, police say the most important deterrent, starts with us. If we see something suspicious, police say, we must report it.
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