METAL thieves have been stopped in their tracks after a string of dawn raids.
A total of three people were arrested across Sunderland and 12 in County Durham on suspicion of money laundering offences, in raids at scrap metal yards.
Durham and Sunderland police stormed the businesses yesterday as part of Operation Mansoncity, which aims to target metal theft and those who profit.
The dealers were all closed while officers carried out thorough searches, and are expected to remain shut until the searches have finished.
A number of homes were also raided.
Metal theft is a major issue in the region.
Only last week a 100ft brass handrail went missing from inside Roker Lighthouse.
Northumbria Police Assistant Chief Constable Jim Campbell said: “Tackling metal theft is a force priority and we make no apologies for the tough stance we are taking.
“Metal thieves are causing significant disruption to our transport, communication and power infrastructures, affecting daily life in our communities. We will not tolerate it.
“This is a multi-million pound industry which relies heavily on self regulation, but our evidence suggests that in the case of many dealers this is not working.
“Thefts are ranging from opportunist thieves stripping lead off a house roof to gangs of organised criminals posing as legitimate workmen and stealing miles of cable from utilities and transport networks.
“Last year in the force area we had almost 5,000 metal thefts.
“However, the thieves would have no market for their stolen goods if it wasn’t for the metal dealers who buy from them, often knowing fine well that the goods are stolen.
“It’s important people realise that those running these yards illegally are organised criminals, making vast profits while innocent members of our communities suffer the consequences.”
“This activity shows there is no hiding place for those involved in metal theft.
“Those who operate legally have nothing to fear – we support those dealers who are working to improve the industry.”
The operation has taken months to plan and involved about 80 officers and colleagues from British Transport Police.
Chief Superintendent Dave Orford, regional police lead for metal theft, said: “Much has been done to curb this crime, both by target hardening and encouraging scrap dealers to act responsibly and self-regulate the industry.
“While we have previously carried out unannounced spot checks on dealers, this is the first time we have effectively closed yards for business.
“This should send a clear message to metal thieves and people who profit.”