- Associated Press - Thursday, July 9, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Attorney General Leslie Rutledge launched an initiative Thursday to deter Arkansas’ persistent problem of metal theft through increased training and tracking.

Her office will oversee the new Metal Theft Prevention Program, which will consolidate the state’s efforts and train both law enforcement officers and scrap metal dealers in using the state’s metal theft tracking software.

“While we do have existing laws in Arkansas to combat the metal theft problem, we unfortunately do not have the resources and have not had the resources in a statewide coordinated effort to properly combat it,” Rutledge said during a news conference at the state Capitol. “We want to disincentivize the thieves from stealing. We know if no one is buying the scrap, no one will steal it.”

State officials said incidents of metal theft have continued despite state laws enacted since 2009 to try to curb the problem. Arkansas ranks fifth nationally in the number of insurance claims from metal theft, officials said, and law enforcement agencies reported more than 600 incidents of metal theft last year, including from telecommunication infrastructure, which affected telephone and internet service in rural areas.

To try to prevent such thefts, Rutledge said officers from the attorney general’s Special Investigations Division will begin training this month. In August, the officers will begin making controlled sales at scrap metal dealers to make sure they are following the metal theft prevention procedures required under state law. Scrap businesses not following the law will receive warnings, but additional violations will carry fines up to $1,000.

Rutledge said thieves repeatedly steal wiring from farmers’ agricultural pivot irrigation systems, making maybe a few hundred dollars, but the damage costs farmers at a minimum $10,000 to repair.

It’s hard to estimate an exact cost, Arkansas Farm Bureau President Randy Veach said, because of hidden expenses like lost time, crop damage and labor costs for repairs. He estimated its likely millions of dollars annually.

“This problem is becoming an epidemic around this state… our rural areas are targeted because of the sparse population and the lack of lighting,” Veach said. “They target our farm shops, our equipment, our center pivots, our irrigation wells, our poultry operations and even our homes sometimes and our utilities.”

Thieves also target cellphone towers and telecommunication infrastructure when looking for metal, AT&T; Arkansas Director of External Affairs Ronnie Dedman said at the news conference. So far this year, the company has had 65 cases of cable theft that have cost at least $650,000 to repair. Last year, the company investigated 130 cases of theft and spent $1.5 million on repairs.

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