Mayor seeks answers from police about ‘scourge’ of copper thefts

Mayor Bryan Paterson (right) at the most recent meeting of the Kingston Police Services Board was eager to learn more about copper theft and what can be done about it. Boad Chair Jarrod Stearns looks on. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

At the meeting of the Police Services Board on Thursday, Sept. 21, 2023, Mayor Bryan Paterson led a discussion about the problem of vandalism at Belle Park, which included the theft of several “copper-containing components” stolen from the site between August 4 and 7. 

The mayor began by saying that when the item came before City Council, councillors raised a number of questions about what he called “the scourge of copper theft” and other similar metals and how this might be better managed. For example, there were questions about curbing the ability to resell such items by making resellers prove they came into possession of copper and other materials legally, the mayor relayed.

Acting Chief of Police Scott Fraser described in detail and how such crimes are currently occurring and being handled, saying, “Obviously, this is a prolific offence occurring all over Canada, and Kingston’s not exempt. Belleville, Brockville, Gananoque — it doesn’t matter. We’re seeing a lot of it. “

Fraser pointed out that many of the offenders caught stealing metals in this way were “repeat customers.” This included a couple of arrests earlier this week in which charges were laid. Then, as the chief described it, the two men spent “as much time in custody as we are at today’s board meeting.”

He indicated that, most of the time, police are chasing the same people for the same types of crimes, but he emphasized, “We [still do] continue to chase them.”

“We also have other strategies that we’ve employed for our area — without getting into our investigative strategy on what we’re doing — but certainly It’s a serious matter, and we take [it] seriously,” Fraser said.

Acting Chief Fraser (left) explains how prolific the crime of copper theft has become, as Chair Stearns (centre) and Mayor Paterson (right) look on. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

It is a difficult crime to control because of the sheer vastness of opportunities, Fraser said.

“Power lines are… everywhere. It doesn’t matter whether you’re rural, you’re in town, wherever you are: there’s lots of access and areas where people can certainly get in to get this stuff,” he explained.

“It used to just be stolen from warehouses and yards. That then decreased because everybody’s taking security to a whole new level. But that then causes people to go out, and where we used to see low-lying wires, those have been cut. And now we’re seeing telephone poles being cut down so they can access the wires,” Fraser continued.

“Obviously, there’s lots of money in it.”

The chief commended the patrol section of Kingston Police, saying they have “done a tremendous job on the ground at the time of events; then generally it’s following up with our detective branch, who’ve been employing a number of strategies to help mitigate this.”

However, he pointed out, metal thieves are like locusts: “When you do enforcement in one area, then it just goes to a neighbouring area,” as has been happening lately in Belleville and Napanee.

The floor was then turned over to Brian Pete, Inspector in charge of Criminal Investigations, who had some strategies to suggest.

“Unfortunately, property crime, specifically the theft of precious metals, has been an issue around here and in other communities for decades. I think what we’re dealing with now is higher sophistication, higher frequency, and increased scope,” he began.

This is why more communities are feeling the ill effects of theft of phone lines, Pete said, which he called a ”huge public safety risk” because it cuts people off from emergency communications over the phone or the internet.

“I can assure you, we are throwing a lot of resources at these thefts. In fact, you can probably trace the increase [in arrests] to the beginning of this year,” he said, pointing out the number of similar arrests that have been made since that time.

Inspector Brian Pete. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell.

“People don’t care too much about property crime until it impacts them… but if you speak to people that it is impacting, it is a huge issue. And it’s obviously always a big issue for us.” 

“Cash conversion” is the goal of most metal thefts, Pete said, “to buy other things. Quite often, it’s drugs. You have people that are committing pretty much their entire lives to theft. As I said, they’ve become more sophisticated.” 

Multiple municipalities across Canada have enacted bylaws that govern the licensing and operating rules of salvage yards and metal recyclers. Pete explained that he had looked into a few of those: “It’d be quite similar to a pawn shop, where you can’t accept this type of [material] without demanding government ID which includes a photo, taking down some details about the circumstances of acquiring the material, and even [obtaining] license plate numbers of the seller’s car.”

A bylaw might require employees who complete such sales to keep a register that is available to police or bylaw officers, as well as access to the building or yard, suggested Pete.

Pete acknowledged,“There are definitely arguments, namely from the salvage yard people and recyclers themselves against these types of bylaws. Most of them revolve around the fact that they say they are not an arm of law enforcement, they shouldn’t be made to conduct surveillance on citizens and pass on information to the authorities,” and various other arguments. Unfortunately, there are scrap yards that are taking crime-obtained materials.

“In my opinion, a bylaw of this nature should be considered,” he reiterated, saying Kingston is experiencing a uniquely high number of these sorts of crimes at present.

Mayor Paterson thanked Pete for his suggestions and then asked Fraser, “Is this an issue that’s been raised at the provincial level? For example, through the Association of Chiefs of Police, as they’ve done advocacy in the provincial government?”

The Chief said there have been “major discussions” stemming back to catalytic converter thefts, and that “this is just a spin-off of that… There’s been a lot taking place with the Insurance Corporation of Canada, but we’re still a long way from [solving ] it because we know this is continually occurring… But obviously, we need to have a more coordinated effort globally on it.”

Anyone interested in watching recordings of Police Services Board meetings or viewing agendas and other materials can do so by visiting the PSB page of the Kingston Police website.

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