L.A. is being 'stripped for parts.' Here's what the City Council wants to do about it

Los Angeles, CA - July 27: The new 6th Street Bridge has been closed intermittently since opening due to street racing and other illegal activity on Wednesday, July 27, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
The 6th Street Viaduct has been hit by copper wire thieves. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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Copper wire thefts have plagued Los Angeles for years, posing safety hazards and costing the city millions of dollars. The incidents have surged this last year, according to city officials, who in the past few months have escalated their efforts to curtail both the thieves and the buyers of the stolen wires.

In the latest move, City Councilmembers Kevin de León and Traci Park put forward motions this week to combat the “sheer magnitude of thefts," which they say have resulted in citywide repair costs exceeding $17 million. The measures would create a task force and a standing rewards program for public assistance.

“The city, quite literally, is being stripped for parts,” De León's task force motion read.

The task force would be a collaboration between the Los Angeles Police Department and the Bureau of Street Lighting, which manages about 223,000 streetlights, according to the motion. In a statement, the bureau said it is “committed to taking every necessary step to safeguard our infrastructure.”

“Keeping the lights on is our No. 1 priority,” the bureau said.

The neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights and El Sereno have seen 3,738 streetlights targeted by thieves, according to De León's motion. Even then, Deputy Chief Michael Oreb of LAPD’s Central Bureau said the issue is “underreported” and stretches back years.

Oreb said the proposed task force is a “great starting point.” Initially, law enforcement will focus their efforts in the northeast and south regions of the city to examine the task force's effectiveness. “If we see successes and reductions, we will look into expanding into farther portions of the city," Oreb said.

Read more: Copper wire thefts on the rise, causing delays for Metro's rail lines

De León looks to spend at least $200,000 in council district funds to cover costs related to the task force.

“We can no longer tolerate this brazen disregard for our neighborhoods, jeopardizing the well-being and safety of our residents,” he said at a news conference. “We are taking a firm stand against copper wire theft and sending a clear message that we will bring those responsible to justice.”

City officials are also asking residents for assistance in stopping the thefts with the establishment of a standing rewards program, which would “allow for law enforcement to more efficiently solicit the public’s help.”

The program would allow the public to, in exchange for monetary compensation, submit information through Los Angeles Regional Crime Stoppers. The motion also requested that the LAPD establish a dedicated email address for reporting copper wire thefts, as well as create a public service announcement to promote the program to residents.

Park stressed that both motions are necessary to address the thefts.

“This problem is serious enough that it warrants a multi-layered approach,” Park said.

Residents in Council District 11, which includes Venice, Mar Vista and Westchester, are “sick and tired” of the robberies, Park said.

“We see it everywhere, wiring and other materials being stolen from our public infrastructure,” Park said. “But it's not just public infrastructure, it’s construction sites and other locations. If we don't crack down on it, someone is going to get very seriously hurt.”

Park said metal recyclers and other businesses have been notified about the rules surrounding the intake of stolen copper wire thefts.

Read more: Copper thieves unplug 6th Street Bridge lights

“What we really need to see is our task force going out into the community to those businesses conducting actual investigations, evaluating records to ensure that purchases have been made lawfully and then pursuing legal remedies where they're seeing violations,” she said.

The motions are among the latest initiatives taken by the City Council to combat the thefts. On Jan. 9, Councilmember Heather Hutt introduced a motion requesting the Bureau of Street Lighting to examine the possibility of replacing copper wires with solar-powered lighting.

“The use of solar-powered lights could reduce the costs to power the city's expansive streetlight network and minimize the impacts of vandalism due to copper wire and power theft, providing more reliability to the network,” the motion read.

Hutt’s motion, which was seconded by Councilmember Katy Yaroslavsky, came in the wake of extensive damage to the 6th Street Viaduct, which is in De León’s district, after thieves stole a third of the structure’s copper wires.

In November, council President Paul Krekorian and City Atty. Hydee Feldstein Soto also announced a joint venture to target metal recyclers and anyone who receives the stolen material, notifying them that they must comply with copper-sale laws.

The goal, Feldstein Soto said in a news release, is to help “eliminate the market for stolen copper.”

Krekorian added: “The business owners who trade in stolen copper are just as guilty as the thieves who steal it and we’re putting them on notice that they’ll be held responsible.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.