‘Impossible game of Whac-A-Mole’: Copper wire theft community forum set for Tuesday

With copper wire theft costing St. Paul more than $1 million last year and leaving darkened streets dangerous for pedestrians and drivers, city and county officials are holding a community meeting Tuesday.

Public Works Director Sean Kershaw said they’ve been seeing results from members of the public calling in suspicious activity around street lights and he’s encouraging people to continue. “Keeping eyes on the streets is really important,” he said Monday.

The Ramsey County attorney’s office has charged 19 people so far this year in copper wire theft cases, compared to seven throughout last year and two in 2022. Fourteen of the 19 cases this year were “prompted by citizen observations — something they viewed as suspicious — so they called it in,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi.

State legislators have introduced bills this session that would require people to have a specific license for buying or selling copper scrap metal. They would have to acknowledge they obtained the copper by lawful means through their business, trade or authorized construction work. The bills haven’t yet had hearings in the House or Senate committees.

Warm winter meant wire thefts continued

During most winters, the frozen ground makes it difficult to steal wire, “however, with the warmer winter we have seen wire theft continue all year round,” said Lisa Hiebert, St. Paul Public Works spokesperson. “The challenge is that city crews cannot rewire street lights until the ground and conduits have fully thawed. This has led to quite a long list of areas throughout the city that need to be rewired in the spring.”

The St. Paul City Council approved $500,000 for this year’s budget to address wire theft, a portion of which will be used to hire two seasonal full-time electricians who will be dedicated to replacing wires stolen during theft.

The thefts continue to be a citywide problem, “but there’s no question that Como Park and Phalen as regional parks have been hit really badly,” Kershaw said. “That was the case previously and it’s still the case.”

Jenne Nelson, Como Community Council board chair, enjoys running around Como Lake, but darkened streetlights from wire thefts have caused her to readjust her schedule to go when it’s light out or run on a treadmill.

“The neighborhood is noticeably dark around the lake in a way that makes it feel completely unsafe” for visibility, she said. “I drive in the neighborhood after dark and it’s really hard to see pedestrians.”

In St. Paul’s North End, a 64-year-old pedestrian died on Christmas Eve in an area his widow said she’d called the city about being “pitch black.” A contractor had installed a new streetlight at the intersection on Dec. 15, but they hadn’t been able to connect it because of copper wire theft, Kershaw said at the time.

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The Como Community Council has been hearing from concerned residents.

“It’s clear there’s a lot of frustration around it and I think some of that does stem from feeling a little helpless, like ‘How are we going to fix this problem?’ ” Nelson said. “It feels like a long time to get the lights fixed and then they’re just immediately targeted again. It feels like an impossible game of Whac-A-Mole.”

In the community council’s communications with city staff and City Council, Nelson said she’s felt reassured that wire theft is also on their minds and that they’re working on it, but it “feels to me that in the short term, there’s not a lot we can do.”

Not only streetlights targeted

Thieves are targeting all different styles of streetlights, according to Hiebert.

The problem continues to extend to other sources — “they’re going after traffic signals, which is incredibly dangerous,” Kershaw said. “They’re going after phone systems, they’re going after utility vaults, they’re going after HVAC systems” and charging stations for electric vehicles.

Someone called police “just the other day because they found three large garbage bags of wire” marked with “city of St. Paul” in their backyard, said Deputy Police Chief Kurt Hallstrom.

St. Paul’s street lights are mostly owned and maintained by the city, so anyone who sees people “working” on lights without a city of St. Paul vehicle within view are asked to immediately call 911.

“We need to interrupt the flow of theft and sale,” Hallstrom said. “We need the community’s help and they’re stepping up and they’re making calls and we’re making arrests.”

In addition to the cases recently charged, another three are under review for potential charges, Choi said.

10 times the cost from 2019

Last year, wire theft cost to Public Works was more than $1 million to fix damaged street lights and traffic signals. That’s 10 times the amount from 2019, when the cost to Public Works was just over $100,000.

Public Works has tried various methods to deter wire theft from street lights, including welding and banding access panels, using security bolts and screws to secure access panels, keeping streetlights on to keep the wires electrified during the daytime, using smaller gauge wire to be less valuable for theft and resale, and silent alarms.

“All of these efforts have not prevented wire theft from street lights in St. Paul,” Public Works says on a website dedicated to wire theft information. “Some efforts have resulted in additional damage to the street light fixtures and/or just temporarily ‘moved’ the thefts to another part of the city.”

Public Works has explored changing street light fixtures to solar and plans a pilot program for this spring that will have access panels high on light poles.

“We found that when the public hears all of the things that we are currently doing to try and address it, they have a better sense of how complex the problem is,” Kershaw said.

Community meeting about copper wire theft

  • When: Tuesday, March 19, 6-8 p.m.

  • Where: St. Paul police department’s Western District office, 389 N. Hamline Ave.

  • What: St. Paul police and public works, the Ramsey County attorney and other elected officials will talk about what’s being done about copper wire theft and take questions.

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