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Copper wire thefts plague Bay Area schools as local police make cuts

by Wes Messamore, published

"Copper theft is nothing new in the Bay Area," according to CBS San Francisco, but lately the problem has become so bad, especially in Vallejo where several schools have been stripped of their copper wiring this summer, that it may affect the start of the school year for some students. This is in a city where budget cuts have left the police force struggling to do its job.

For some reason, the rash of copper thefts in Vallejo has focused on schools, with at least ten such thefts occuring this July alone. Vallejo Assistant Superintendent Mel Jordan says that the thefts have cost the school district over $100,000 and might jeopardize some students' return to school this fall. He estimates that one 300 foot long pipe filled with copper wire is worth $5000.

The copper thieves are especially bold because of the risks involved in cutting electrical copper wiring, which conducts in excess of 1,500 volts of electricity, plenty enough to be dangerous. The thieves have been cutting through heavy bolts and metal brackets to get to the live copper wire, which they then cut and extract from the pipe. Their brazenness is also due in no small part to major cuts at the Vallejo police department.

Since the city declared bankruptcy in 2008, it's lost dozens of police officers, going from a 150 officer strong force, to only 90 officers at the beginning of this year, another example of how fiscal problems in cities across California are impacting public safety and even education. Vallejo Police Lieutenant Ken Weaver says the city's police department is "maxed out" right now:

"The guys do a fantastic job, but we just don’t have enough people at the moment."

The copper thefts exemplify the intersection between fiscal policy, public safety, education, and even drug and prison policy. It would appear that city and local governments in California simply cannot afford to continue incarcerating non-violent criminals for years at a time under the Three Strikes policy, and as a result of drug prohibition. Californians will have to decide if this is a better use of their money than funding a police force capable of preventing violent crime and grand theft, and even saving the government money by preventing the theft of government property on such a massive scale.

Californians will also need to decide if taxes and regulations that arguably drive businesses out-of-state and have a chilling effect on economic growth are worth the economic conditions that breed crime and make the theft of copper from public schools-- even with all its risks-- the most lucrative "job opportunity" some luckless Californian can find. As Assistant Superintendent Jordan noted, these thieves are professional technicians. They know how to safely cut a live wire. We should be asking why skilled laborors with that level of expertise are stealing wire from schools at night, instead of wiring up new buildings for honest pay during the daytime.

The public policy solutions to California's problems may not be simple, but they do involve a holistic understanding of the interconnectedness between education, fiscal policy, regulation, taxes, drug policy, and the prison system. Neither money, nor jail cells are infinite, and neither is the capacity for California workers and businesses to shoulder tax burdens. It's time to make some choices. Is the number of people behind bars the measure of California's safety, or is the type of people behind bars? Should the person smoking a small amount of marjuana in his own home be behind bars, or should the copper thieves?

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