Los Angeles

Theft of Street Lamp Copper Wiring Surges in Los Angeles

The presence of valuable copper wire just inches below the surface of neighborhoods with street lamps is a temptation that a growing number of thieves cannot resist, newly released figures show.

Thefts of street lamp wiring in the city of Los Angeles have nearly tripled since the 376 incidents recorded in 2016-17, and are expected to top more than a thousand incidents this current fiscal year, costing the city an estimated $1 million, according to the city's Bureau of Street Lighting.

Crews assigned to replace the stolen wire are backlogged 2-4 weeks, according to Diana Bulnes, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Works.

For neighborhoods, the impact is an extended loss of lighting on which residents and visitors rely for convenience and safety.

"Compared to other streets, it's really dark. You can't see anyone walking at night," said Jon Yambao, who lives in North Hills in a block of Swinton Avenue from which all of the street lamp wiring was stolen two weeks ago.

No culprit has been identified.

A decade ago, a spike in copper prices coming after the Great Recession was blamed for a dramatic increase in copper theft, which in turn led to legislation aimed at making it more difficult to sell stolen copper. Recyclers were required to check the IDs of sellers, not pay in cash and delay payment to new sellers for three days.

What has caused the uptick again in recent years is not clear.

Concurrent with the uptick, there is anecdotal evidence of an increase in power theft by tapping into street lamp wiring. In many cases, this is done by homeless encampments, NBCLA's I-Team has found. 

"We see more power theft with the homeless population than wire theft," wrote Bulness in an email response to NBCLA.

In residential applications, wires with the power are routed underground to vaults located next to each lamp pole. The vault is covered with a heavy but removable lid. The Street Lighting Bureau has been looking at ways to secure the lids, in some cases cementing the lids to the vaults. The seal could still be broken, but would require greater effort and likely draw greater attention.

There are more than 210,000 street lights in Los Angeles, according to the Bureau. The light is the product, but others covet the electricity that powers it, or the copper that carries it.

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