Force's helicopters in metal theft fight; Heat-seeking cameras to trace culprits.
POLICE helicopters are to fly along the routes of Metro lines with heat-seeking cameras to catch metal thieves striking in the dead of night.
Officers from the North East Air Support Unit will use infra-red detection equipment in order to spot intruders.
The operation has come after the Metro system was hit by more than 20 incidents of metal theft this year, causing long delays for consumers and racking up bills of pounds 300,000.
Lead from church roofs, war memorials and remembrance plaques, an elderly person's zimmer frame and even a child's mobility scooter have also been stolen this year as the North East became the country's "epicentre" of metal thefts.
Inspector Les Pattison, who leads the Northumbria Police Metro Unit, said "The theft of cables from the Metro system, as well as being expensive to replace, causes great inconvenience to the public when the system has to be suspended for repair. "We have increased patrols in order to deter criminals from entering the railway lines and the addition of the helicopter will be of great assistance in locating and subsequently catching offenders.
"We are working with our partners to look at the whole issue of cable theft on the Metro system and we will be carrying out more targeted patrols in the future as well as looking at other measures to reduce the number of incidents."
The force's efforts come as the Government is placed under growing pressure to introduce metal theft legislation. Nexus and the Tyne and Wear integrated transport authority are among many lobbying the Department for Transport to make it illegal for scrap metal dealers to hand over cash without detailed identification records.
Director of rail and infrastructure for Nexus, Ken Mackay, said: "We welcome the support of the Northumbria Force helicopter in the fight against cable theft on the Metro network.
"Patrols on the system have been already stepped up, especially during the night, and having air support will make it even tougher for the thieves."
Earlier this year, British Transport Police put on special patrols to combat a rise in the number of metal thefts in the region and the force's deputy chief constable Paul Crowther Parliament that "the North East seems to be the epicentre of metal thefts as far as the railways are concerned".
Such is the extent of the problem that the Government last month announced it was to start protecting the East Coast mainline with a task force of retired Gurkhas drafted into areas of the North East, specifically to target metal thefts ahead of the Olympic games.
Planners say they are worried any large-scale thefts could impact non-tourists heading to the region from the games in London next year.
More than 4,000 separate incidents have been reported to police in the North East this year and MPs are calling for tougher action to be taken to stop the growing crime.
Experts say rising prices for scrap metal fuelled by the global demand for copper are making metal attractive to thieves. Out-of-date regulations relating to metal recycling have also been criticised.