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North Dakota cops take on copper theft training, saying they’re ‘behind the curve’

FARGO — About 30 law enforcement officers from eastern North Dakota attended a training session here Thursday to help them beat copper thieves at their own increasingly sophisticated game.

“It’s an epidemic crime, and law enforcement is really behind the curve in how it works,” said trainer Terence Alling of Metal Theft Training and Consultants in San Francisco.

Alling displayed photos of various knives he said were found on copper thieves, along with razor blades and wood sharpeners used for stripping wire.

Officers should remember that besides being armed, the thieves often carry a significant quantity of controlled substances in their systems, Alling said.

“Always assume you’re dealing with a user,” he told participants.

Copper thefts have been on the rise throughout the nation since 2007, and the Red River Valley region has seen its fair share. Alling said the theft of 26,000 pounds of copper from Dakota Supply Group in April would be considered a major haul for thieves, even in a major city.

It’s their expertise that allows thieves to become more ambitious in some cases, Alling said, although thieves run the gamut from rings of criminals working together to individual opportunists.

Some copper thieves can run heavy machinery to haul in a big load. Others are the ones who cut through electrical wires safely. And finally, some have inside knowledge of a business, Alling said. “First thing you need to look for is inside theft.”

That contrasts with the limited knowledge of nonferrous metals many law enforcement officers bring to metal theft cases, said West Fargo Police Chief Arland Rasmussen, whose department brought in Alling for training.

“We go around and we say, ‘Oh, it’s a spool of wire, it looks like junk,’ “ Rasmussen said.

But that junk, sold as scrap metal, can bring an enterprising seller profits in a market that’s seen steady rises in prices for copper and other metals.

That’s part of what led North Dakota to pass legislation this past session regulating the sale of scrap metal for the first time. It was the 49th state to do so.

The thefts don’t just affect local businesses that are victims. Copper thieves put out power to customers when they yanked about $50 worth of wire from an Otter Tail Power substation near Wahpeton in September, one of numerous cases of damage to infrastructure reported around the nation.

Repairs cost the company about $30,000.

Rasmussen said more area businesses are cooperating by keeping track of metal purchases to help stem the thefts.

He hopes Thursday’s training session sends a message to thieves that enforcement is being stepped up.