The MPS is launching its first ever dedicated unit to tackle metal theft
19 December 2011
The MPS is launching its first ever dedicated unit to tackle metal theft - a spiralling problem which is costing the economy an estimated £700 million a year and causing the deaths of two offenders a month in the UK, according to the most recent research.
The new multi-agency Waste and Metal Theft Taskforce, whose team includes experts from BT and the local authority's environmental crime unit, is based in Bexley, one of the boroughs most severely affected by metal theft due to its high number of scrap metal yards.
Today's launch follows the conclusion of Operation Ferrous - the latest Met-wide operation to tackle the problem of metal theft. Objects targeted range widely, from cable, drain covers, lift panels from housing estates and memorial plaques, to children's playground slides, fire escape stairs and even English Heritage buildings.
In the first two weeks of December officers across the Met carried out a total of 275 inspections and searches of scrap metal dealer yards, arrested 15 people for offences ranging from burglary to transporting waste metal illegally without a licence, and seized 16 vehicles.
The conclusion of the operation on 14 December was timed to coincide with ACPO's latest 'day of action' to tackle metal theft nationally, led by British Transport Police. The MPS carried out its first Operation Ferrous in late November, and another will follow in the near future.
Chief Superintendent David Chinchen, the MPS lead for Operation Ferrous, said: "Metal theft is not a victimless crime but is causing increasing misery to commuters and householders, and costing millions to the rail industry and local authorities.
"Our latest operation aimed to identify, disrupt and deter those involved in this illegal trade, and acted as an important intelligence-gathering exercise for future operations so that we can target those evading the law and those who supply them even more effectively.
"We are keen to work with legitimate scrap metal dealers, but those who aren't can expect to see regular enforcement. These crimes are covered by a complex range of laws, thus a multi-pronged approach is essential in order to tackle it robustly and we are already working closely with our partner agencies.
"Our officers will employ a wide range of robust tactics and we plan to run regular operations to crack down on those seeking to profit, and who end disrupting other's lives and putting their own at risk."
One of the scrap metal dealers inspected in Islington during Operation Ferrous was so deterred from accepting illegal metals that when he was offered what he suspected was memorial plaque metal the day after his inspection, he immediately called police to alert them.
In Waltham Forest, two men driving a trailer of suspected illegal metal into a scrapyard panicked when they saw police, the passenger jumped down and fled, while the driver u-turned and sped off. He was pursued by officers who discovered the vehicle had no insurance and is now the process of being prosecuted.
Seizures made during Operation Ferrous ranged from lead found in an Ealing scrap metal yard, suspected of being stolen and currently being tested for Smartwater (a liquid which shows up under ultra-violet light denoting stolen goods), to an illegal car breakers yard in Havering that was exporting waste to Africa.
In Bexley borough, results included finds of £16,000-worth of BT cable as well as copper earthing straps stolen from a National Grid sub-station. The removal of earthing straps from electricity sub-stations can cause dangerously high sudden power surges and lead electronic equipment in nearby homes to explode. In an extreme case in Castleford, West Yorkshire, theft from a sub-station caused an explosion which led to the sudden collapse of three nearby houses.
Officers in Bexley who raided the house of a metal theft suspect during Operation Ferrous confiscated a gas-powered handgun (airgun) and two ceremonial swords. In the back garden they found charred remains in an oil-drum suggesting evidence of cable-burning - the process used by metal thieves to extract the lucrative copper from inside.
Bexley officers also discovered one man hauling car metal parts onto the back of his truck, for transport to a scrap metal yard, who had been claiming incapacity benefit since 2008 for a broken leg, pelvis and shoulder, and another van driver claiming he was incapable of working due to depression.
The operational lead for Bexley Waste and Metal Theft taskforce, Acting Inspector James Coomber, whose expertise has led to him holding workshops for other UK police forces, said: "Although the majority of scrap metal dealers are legitimate, those who are not are contributing to a thriving illegal trade which we are determined to clamp down on.
"We will conduct regular operations to detect and arrest those responsible for metal theft and, by working closely with the scrap yards, hope to prevent stolen metal being recycled in the first place."
The Deputy Mayor of London Richard Barnes, who attended the launch and chairs the London Resilience Forum, added: "Metal thieves cause huge economic damage and misery to individuals going about their daily lives and it's clear they will stop at nothing to make a quick buck. I am delighted to see the enormous strides Bexley has made with the launch of the taskforce and together with the efforts under the Met-wide Operation Ferrous, delivers a forceful message to those intent on carrying out such malicious theft and sabotage that it will not be tolerated."
The Bexley team will also act in an advisory capacity to other boroughs in the MPS, particularly areas with high numbers of scrap metal yards, which are known to be particularly affected.
Although BT and electricity companies mark all their cables, only certain yards are authorised to receive them. Some scrap metal yards invest hundreds of thousands of pounds in large 'granulating' machines to extract the copper from illegal metals. The time it takes from stolen metal arriving a yard, to being processed, and transported away to the buyer can be as little as twenty minutes.
Yards who do not comply with the law also routinely act in networks, with the first one visited by police calling round others in the local area to warn of imminent searches. A licence to run a yard can be obtained via the Internet by filling in a simple form, and does not have to be renewed annually.
As the industry is run entirely on cash, transactions are hard for police to trace back and as metals are often distributed for sale via 'middlemen', the individuals committing the original crimes can be difficult to track down.
Increasingly, there is evidence that organised criminal networks are moving into the thriving illegal trade in stolen metal. Offenders are also getting increasingly adept - police have found adapted ladders, tools, and even vans that have specially adapted trapdoors to winch up a manhole cover as they drive over it without being observed.
Another method employed by thieves is to set up around a manhole cover, wearing 'BT' vests, carrying 'BT' passes, but as BT always uses sub-contractors to recover its underground cable they will always be acting illegally.
In September 2011, four men were arrested in Lambeth using two bogus BT trucks, a BT van and a winch to steal underground cable. The same team are believed to be responsible for cable cuts across London and Essex in recent months.
The scale of the problem is having a huge impact as a single piece of copper cable stolen from an underground telephone network can knock out the landlines to more than 200 homes and businesses for up to three days at a time.
Many companies now use fibre-optic cable, which is valueless to thieves but often damaged in the their attempts to extract the valuable copper lying alongside it underground. As fibre-optic cable carries internet data this can cause significant disruption to nearby residents and businesses.
The highest number of individuals caught up in a single cable theft incident occurred in Bexley, when 94,000 people had their power disabled for days on end in 2009 after thieves targeted a supply facility near Dartford - the estimated cost of the incident was £29 million.
More recently, in summer 2011, Bexley was again hit after residents in the Larner Road Estate in Thamesmead had to be evacuated after severe flooding and power cuts caused when thieves attacked copper piping attached to the industrial-sized water tanks situated at the top of residential tower blocks.
Two brothers were jailed in August this year in Bexley after a failed copper cable theft which saw their companion fatally electrocuted. John and Jason Tusting received eight years, eight months sentence between them for burglary and criminal damage recklessly endangering life after their accomplice James Payne died.
Copper is not the only sought-after metal thieves are trading in - rising numbers of catalytic converters are being stolen from vehicles due to the lucrative platinum they contain, a crime expected to increase from 3 January 2012 when the Low Emission Zone emissions standards become more stringent.