Meetings are being scheduled; legislation is being introduced
SIKESTON -- Copper theft is an epidemic in the state, especially the Bootheel area for the past year. Communities have come together to fight the problem, and now the state is getting involved.
At the request of Gov. Matt Blunt, community meetings are scheduled around the state for victims or other targets to discuss concerns and preventative efforts, as well as state legislation set to be introduced.
Just last week, there was a forum in Poplar Bluff. And a meeting is scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday in the Caruthersville Public Library, with farmers, electric cooperatives and other victims invited.
"It's open to people who are victims and those who want to learn what they can do to report it and what to observe," said Lt. Ryan Holder of the Pemiscot County Sheriff's Department.
Over the past year, the price of copper has practically tripled to more than $3 a pound when sold in scrap yards. Thieves strip the copper wiring from central pivot irrigation systems, in addition to taking copper ground wires from utility companies and electric co-ops.
Senator Robert Mayer of District 25, which includes Stoddard, New Madrid and Pemiscot counties, said that at last week's forum, victims spoke who had had air conditioning units stolen, aluminum taken off trailers, barns and storage sheds as well as some of the copper wiring stripped from homes being constructed.
"There are a lot of different circumstances that we were made aware of and need to address," he said.
Sgt. Detective Greg Ourth of the Scott County Sheriff's Department, who serves on a task force concerning the thefts for Southeast Missouri, also attended last week's meeting. The department also plans to have a countywide forum sometime next year to discuss the issue.
"I think it was well attended by a variety of people," he said. "Not only including law enforcement, but area farmers and co-op owners as well."
Upcoming legislation will be discussed. Last session, a bill was passed by the Senate, which would require dealers to collect more information on those selling the scrap metal, and then share it with law enforcement. However, the bill was late in session and died.
"This bill will be somewhat different," Mayer said. He plans to introduce a similar bill in the next session. It is being backed by organizations such as the Missouri Farm Bureau and the Association of Missouri Rural Electric Cooperatives.
The main change will be the requirement for the dealer to record information about the seller -- such as a driver's license and description of the seller and their vehicle, Mayer said.
Holder has seen the alterations to the bill. "I think with what we have now, there is a good possibility that we're going to get it passed this time," he said.
The additional requirements alone will hopefully deter thieves, he said. Similar legislation is in place or pending in neighboring states.
One helpful tool now provided by the state is the Missouri Information Analysis Center, which provides informational bulletins including pictures or vehicles, description of stolen property and video footage, which has led to one arrest.
"It's a centralized network that each agency has available to call in information," Ourth explained. The database helps officials compare information and look for patterns.
Ourth said that if legislation is passed, biographical information about the sellers will be added.
Also to be discussed at the forums are tips for potential victims, especially farmers, who often leave their equipment unattended throughout the winter months.
Holder and Ourth said the main thing is to check equipment more regularly -- although it may be time-consuming or expensive to make daily checks.
Ourth noted that the first 48 hours of any crime are most crucial to recover items. "Over the winter, it can be awhile until they realize something is missing," he said.
Law enforcement in the area are on the lookout, too, Ourth said.
"We have implemented what we believe to be effective surveillance," he said. There has been increased rural patrol and investigations are being conducted, with pending arrests, he said.
Those involved hope that this week's forum in Caruthersville will have a high turnout with several good suggestions as well, especially since the town and surrounding areas have been hit hard by the theft issue.
"I hope that anybody who has an interest in this issue will turn out and talk to us on Friday," said Mayer. "We just look forward to meeting with people, finding a solution and getting legislation passed that will be effective in reducing the amounts of these offenses."