Lawmakers try to crack down on metal thieves

(WXYZ) - Copper thieves seem to have no problem selling copper wire and tools they stole from the power company.  That's why DTE Energy, Detroit Police, and even state lawmakers are fighting back.

Copper thieves keep striking in broad daylight.  7 Action News first showed on Wednesday how a  group of four men jumped onto a DTE Energy truck on Detroit's West Side, and within 30 seconds, they grabbed coils of copper wire and made their escape.

But DTE was watching that day in August, using hidden cameras, and a GPS tracking device secretly stashed inside the wire.

Detroit police used this evidence to arrest the four men – and they each pleaded guilty to felony larceny.

In just a 3-month time period this summer, copper thieves targeted DTE trucks 41 different times.

"Stop because you're going to get somebody killed.  Guaranteed you're going to get somebody killed, said DTE Lineman Lamar Williams.  Williams said the copper thieves are getting more and more aggressive, in some cases using weapons to get the metal they want to sell.

"You'll be at a light, and they'll just climb on the truck, help themselves to the wire… This happens to some crews all the time," said Williams.

In addition to putting people in danger, thieves who steal copper and brass like this cost DTE millions of dollars a year.

The recent rash of copper thefts from trucks isn't the only thing DTE and Detroit Police are fighting.  Thieves have also been breaking into substations.  Sometimes the suspects knock out the power for thousands of customers.

"They rip the copper out," said DTE Substation Operator William Gipson.

At one scrap yard alone, DTE Chief Security Officer Michael Lynch says his investigators found 2,000 pounds of their wire and metal parts from substations.

"All this wire and cable was taken from just two substations – two out of 22 that have been broken into… The scrap yard was willing to take this wire in knowing that it's marked with the substation that it came from," said Lynch.

Lynch says in both the truck theft and substation break-in cases, DTE helped Detroit Police go after people at the scrap yards for allegedly accepting stolen goods.

"If there's no buyer, there's no seller," said Detroit Police Sgt. Rebecca McKay.  She says new legislation that just passed the House of Representatives in Lansing will help her lock up more thieves.  Part of the new proposed law would force the sellers of copper wire, air conditioners and catalytic converters to wait three days to get cash from a scrap yard.

"It gives us time to figure out where they were bringing that material and maybe be there waiting for them on that third day to pick them up," said McKay.

The new Scrap Metal Theft Reform Bills will also require the scrap yard employees to photograph each item, and they will have to identity which employee weighed the material.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) says she's been trying to get tougher laws passed for four years.  Now she's getting bi-partisan support and she's hopeful reforms are just around the corner.

"This is not a Detroit issue. I can tell you that the wind turbines in Sanilac County get ripped off on a daily basis.  The farmers in some of the rural areas are getting ripped off.  This is a Michigan issue," said Tlaib.

DTE Energy security officials say they will not tolerate anyone putting their customers or their employees in danger, and they'll keep using their undercover operations to bust copper thieves.

If you know of people are stealing copper or metal from DTE, they are offering rewards of  $1000 if you help catch the person stealing the wire and $5000 if you help catch the person buying the wire.  The rewards do not require a conviction.  Call DTE at 313-235-9119.

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