The local war on the theft of copper and other metals, and the damage caused by thieves who strip copper wires and pipes from homes, apartment buildings and churches has a new weapon.
Called Copperstoppers, the program will be operated by CrimeStoppers of Memphis and Shelby County in partnership with the Memphis Police Department's Real Time Crime Center. At its core, Copperstoppers will provide enhanced awards of up to $1,000 for anonymous tips that lead to the arrest of thieves as well as those who knowingly trade in stolen metal.
Copperstoppers represents a new coordination of government and private sector interests who say copper theft is ruining homes, eroding the city's tax base, and discouraging investment in the city.
“The Copperstoppers program is an important step to stop those who are stealing nothing less than our city’s future,” Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said in comments Tuesday at a press conference in a Westwood neighborhood where more than 30 homes were damaged severely by copper thieves recently. Wharton came up with the name for the program.
“We have houses in some neighborhoods that have so much damage that repair isn’t possible or feasible. These structures turn into blight, are no longer on our tax rolls and drive investors from our city,” Wharton added.
E. Winslow (Buddy) Chapman, executive director of CrimeStoppers, said that extra awards of up to $1,000 – in additional to regular CrimeStoppers awards – will be given to those who call the organization’s tips line: 528-CASH (2274). “Our awards committee expects to provide up to the maximum awards when we get a tip of a theft in progress, or tips about those who are buying, selling or transporting out of town stolen scrap metal,” Chapman said.
Private donations and pledges have provided the funds that will be used to make the special awards.
The program is being launched with CrimeStoppers advertising support – posters and neighborhood signs, bumper stickers, static window clings and other printed materials to build awareness and put pressure on the criminal element. The Copperstoppers campaign introduces a new definition of a “copperhead” as “any venomous critter who sells, transports or buys stolen metal.” The materials show a copper air conditioning coil, with the head of a copperhead snake on top.
The theft of copper is the primary problem, according to area realtors, home builders and others. Thieves strip homes of wires and copper piping, tearing up walls, floors and appliances in the process. They steal the copper coils from air conditioning units inside and outside structures. They also strip wire from electric meters and boxes.
The press conference was held in the driveway of a modest home at 4197 Durango Drive in southwest Memphis. The house’s interior was virtually demolished by copper thieves.
District Attorney General Amy Weirich said more information from citizens about copper thefts and illegal trading will help police and her prosecutors round up evidence needed in court cases.
Builder Daniel Quinn, who has been hired to repair numerous damaged homes in the neighborhood by J.D. Marks Realtors, took members of the news media on tours of some of the houses hit by thieves and still considered crime scenes by police. They saw brick homes built circa 2001 with a value then of $60,000, which have sustained as much as $20,000 in damages.
Quinn said the neighborhood has 133 homes. “We manage 45 houses. Sixteen are occupied and at least 25 have been hit by copperheads. Some of the 25 have been hit twice."
The ad-hoc committee was formed several months ago to plan what has become Copperstoppers. Participants have included representatives of the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce; Memphis Light, Gas and Water Division; the Memphis Mayor's office; the Memphis Area Association of Realtors; Memphis Area Homebuilders Association; the West Tennessee Homebuilders Association, as well as Memphis Police, the Shelby County District Attorney General's Office and CrimeStoppers.
The group is considering other steps to fight copper theft, including a request that arrested copper thieves face felony instead of misdemeanor charges if the theft resulted in costly damage to buildings, and seeking new legislation from the Tennessee General Assembly requiring legitimate scrap metal yards to keep a digital list of sales.