Cops cope with copper capers
IN THE old days, "copper" referred to the person who tried to stop thieves from stealing stuff, not the stuff that thieves stole.
Remember Edward G. Robinson playing a gangster in the movie "Little Caesar" saying, "Listen, you crummy flat-footed copper, I'll show you whether I've lost my nerve and my brains"?
Then he went out and ripped off 40,000 feet of copper wiring from freeway lights, hawked it at the local recycling center and retired in comfort.
Our coppers, I mean, police officers, appear to be caught flat-footed on how to deal with Oahu thieves' favorite pastime: stealing copper wiring from wherever they can find it.
The copper thieves seem to prefer wire from H1 and H2 freeway lighting systems, leaving the highways dark at night. Now, offhand, this would seem more premeditated, pre-emptive, passive-aggressive intent to cause bodily harm and possible death than mere thievery.
People on this island have enough problems driving in daylight. Forcing them to drive in the dark is like handing them a loaded Thompson submachine gun and a blindfold. Or a Thompson submachine gun and cell phone. (Studies have shown that operating a Thompson submachine gun while talking on a cell phone is one of the leading causes of bullet-riddled pedestrians. "Can you hear me now, you crummy flatfoot?")
The point is that when thieves put people's lives at risk by stealing copper wiring, the offense is a little more serious than theft.
Yet officials seem to be treating it as if the copper thieves are doing nothing more than ripping off car stereos or "Welcome to the Historic North Shore" road signs.
COPPER IS the commodity of choice for criminals because it can be sold on the open market for something like $852 an ounce. Or pound. Or foot. I don't know. But it's worth a lot. So much that thieves actually are donning those orange vests and hard hats worn by state road-workers and digging up copper wires in broad daylight right under the noses, plate lunches and cell phones of passing motorists.
They collect it during the day because that's when the electricity is turned off and you can apparently harvest your copper crop without frying yourself the way James Cagney did in "Angels With Dirty Faces" when he got the electric chair. (Ironically, and somewhat on point, that was the movie where Cagney yelled either "Come an' get me, copper!" or "Come and get my copper!" depending on whether it is the director's cut.)
TRANSPORTATION officials have been trying to figure out how to make copper wiring more theft-proof, with ideas like putting up little signs saying, "No Copper Here" and "The Big Money's in the Gold Market" at key freeway underpasses and transformer stations.
My meager suggestion would be to keep the power on during the day. Sure, we'd pay a bit more on electrical bills, but think how much fun it would be to be driving down the H1 and suddenly see a copper thief launched into orbit after striking a live copper wire with a pickax. Yee-ha!
Our coppers have started to fight these growing copper capers by questioning any suspicious individuals found hanging out on the side of the road with metal detectors and those huge giant wooden spools used to wind, oh, say, copper wiring.
BUT THERE'S a better way to break up the copper-stealing rackets: bust the people who are buying the stolen copper. It's a fairly advanced and complicated form of police work, but here's how it's done: An undercover cop posing as a street punk takes a huge roll of copper wiring to a recycling business and sells it. He then arrests the idiot who bought it. Because anybody buying 5,000 feet of copper wiring from a street punk knows the punk didn't come by it legally. Do recyclers think the jerks spun the copper wire from straw, like in "Rumpelstiltskin"?
These "recyclers" don't even deserve to be called by that politically correct, environmentally conscientious name. They should be called and treated like what they really are: illegal fences.
Going after a copper fence might not be as exciting as engaging in a machine-gun battle with Little Caesar, but you can't choose your criminals these days. During Al Capone's time the money was underground hooch. Now it's under highways.
, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' 2004 First Place Award winner for humor writing, appears Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org