Copper Theft: The Punishment should Fit the Crime

Steven Brown, editor in chief

In our last issue, April 2008, we ran an article on copper theft and a new wireless camera technology that Duke Energy is using to combat the crime. If you didn’t get our last issue, you can read the archived article at our website, www.utilityautomation.com. The article has elicited a number of responses from our readers, which tells me copper theft is a top-of-mind topic for electric utilities right now.

One reader writes:
“Regarding the story on copper theft in the April 2008 issue, one glaring contrast sticks out at me and seems to continually hang over the industry regarding copper theft—the punishment does not fit the crime. Thieves are charged with breaking and entering and theft of property (possibly only attempted theft). Theft (or attempts) will not significantly decrease until legislation is enacted making the punishment much more severe, and also fit the potential outcomes of the crime.

“Think about the possible consequences of removing ground wires or leaving energized equipment in an unsafe state. Charges such as endangering the health and safety of the public, intent to perform bodily harm, and possibly attempted manslaughter should be applied. I fear the day that a member of our maintenance crew is electrocuted due to an unsafe configuration inside a substation or elsewhere due to a theft. What if a member of the public is similarly injured? I also fear the day that a would-be thief is hurt yet not killed, and subsequently sues and shifts media attention onto unsafe utility practices rather than the thieves themselves. (Lack of accountability and displacing blame are far too common; after all people can sue because a cup did not warn that coffee is indeed hot).

“This is a route I hope not to see us head down. But until then, any investments we as utilities make in catching or stopping thieves are unnecessary expenditures made as an attempt to stop those that do not abide by the rules of the law, and they will largely be unsuccessful if the penalties are not severe enough. ” The fear of going to jail for a much longer time due to being charged with attempted homicide will definitely make an impact on these opportunistic thieves. And maybe simply being aware that they could electrocute themselves or someone else may make them think twice. Most people are probably unaware of the dangers of copper theft. It’s not a point that is stressed nearly as much as the cost to the utilities.”

The reader makes a valid point: While preventative measures, like those noted in our April issue, are certainly worthwhile, the utility industry would be well-advised to work with law enforcement to ensure copper theft is prosecuted commensurately with the potential hazards the crime poses.

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