By Jorge Casuso
October 25, 2023 -- Police arrested three suspects early Monday morning after pulling over a vehicle and finding 500 feet of copper wire, a material critical to Santa Monica's infrastructure, according to police.
Patrolling officers found the wire in the back seat of the vehicle after pulling the driver over for a stop sign violation at the intersection of 12th Street and Montana Avenue, police said.
They also found a methamphetamine pipe on the driver side floorboard, said Lt. Erika Aklufi, the Police Department spokesperson.
The suspects were arrested for grand theft, conspiracy and possession of drug paraphernalia, Aklufi said. The three suspects were cited and released, while the investigation remains ongoing.
"Maintaining the streetlighting infrastructure is critical to the safe operation of roads and walkways throughout the City," Aklufi said.
She added that those who see "suspicious activity around electrical equipment" should call police to report a potential theft in progress.
Copper can typically be resold for between $2 and $4 per pound, and its theft can threaten safety and be costly to replace in infrastructure.
Thieves have been targeting lights on freeways and streets across LA County, costing Caltrans about $24 million in repairs over tthe past four years, according to NBC News.
They have also been targeting above ground sections of LA Metro rail lines causing "disruptions for the rail system, which serves more than 5 million riders a month," according to a July 1 report in the LA Times.
Last year, Metro reported more than 60 copper wire thefts, mainly affecting the A Line that connects Pasadena and Long Beach, according to the Times.
During the first six months of this year, there have been 21 thefts, mainly on the C Line, which runs between Redondo Beach and Norwalk.
The theft of copper wire and pipes has been a longstanding problem, prompting the FBI to issue an assessment report in 2008 highlighting its impact on U.S. critical infrastructure.
"Copper thieves are threatening US critical infrastructure by targeting electrical sub-stations, cellular towers, telephone land lines, railroads, water wells, construction sites, and vacant homes for lucrative profits," the report stated.
"The theft of copper from these targets disrupts the flow of electricity, telecommunications, transportation, water supply, heating, and security and emergency services and presents a risk to both public safety and national security."
According to the report, "copper thieves are typically individuals or organized groups who operate independently or in loose association with each other and commit thefts in conjunction with fencing activities and the sale of contraband."
The report cited a case in April 2008 that resulted in five tornado warning sirens in the Jackson, Mississippi failing to function during an approaching tornado.
Copper thieves cost the infrastructure in Pinal County, Arizona $10 million over the previous year during a "copper theft epidemic" that targeted the material in water irrigation wells and pumps, "resulting in the loss of crops and high replacement costs."
In May of this year, U.S. Rep. Josh Harder sent the FBI a letter demanding more information and resources for fighting the surge of copper metal in San Joaquin County, which has the highest levels of copper wire theft in the country.
"The increased cost of copper is triggering a new wave of theft," Harder said. "Copper thieves are exploiting this demand and the resulting price surge by stealing and selling the metal to recyclers."