Updated pawn oversight

The Baltimore Sun

When police look for stolen property in Baltimore - be it a GPS or a pricey diamond necklace - they start with a paper trail that leads them through reams of documents stored in plastic trays and cardboard boxes at police headquarters.

It is an antiquated recordkeeping system that every month generates 20,000 paper reports of purchases made by secondhand shops and pawnbrokers. To determine whether a stolen item has been pawned, police go through each record by hand.

Now the City Council is considering a proposal that would require Baltimore's 37 pawnshops and 78 secondhand dealers to file reports electronically, creating a database police could search instantly - potentially speeding the recovery of stolen goods.

"Investigations that take hours would take minutes," said Sgt. Charles McCauley Jr. who works in the Police Department's pawnshop unit. "Detectives will be freed up."

The city legislation, which has the support of a majority of council members, came days after a proposal that would have required electronic reporting statewide died in a state Senate committee, despite passing the House of Delegates 137-0.

Though Baltimore officials have been focused primarily on reducing violent crime, supporters note that many more city residents are theft victims. While larceny was down 1 percent through April 5 of this year compared with last year, thefts from cars were up 22 percent. There were nearly 4,000 larcenies reported through early April in Baltimore.

"We have to update the current system," said City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who is sponsoring the legislation. "Police officers are being asked to do more every day with less. We should be giving them the tools they need."

Several pawnshop owners said they support the concept of the city legislation but that they are still studying its ramifications. The industry argues that pawnbrokers should not be singled out for regulation because stolen goods can be sold at all types of stores, including antique shops and jewelry stores.

The tighter that government squeezes pawnshops, some have argued, the more likely it is that stolen goods will be sold to less regulated businesses where the transaction is not reported.

"The smart crook knows not to go to a pawnshop," said Mitch Heyman, owner of Security Loan & Jewelry on Eastern Avenue.

Both the state and the city license pawnbrokers - which buy items with the understanding that the seller can purchase them back for a negotiated price - as well as secondhand stores, which include antique dealers and consignment shops.

In Baltimore - where pawnshops and secondhand shops are regulated by city code - owners are required to file reports describing the items they buy, including serial numbers, identifying marks and the seller's name and driver's license number or physical description.

Under the city proposal, shop owners would be required to provide that information electronically, most likely through an Internet site. They would also be required to submit a picture of each purchase.

In the Washington region, police in Montgomery and Prince George's counties are working with shop owners on a voluntary electronic system.

State law has required Howard County pawnbrokers and secondhand dealers to file electronically since 2005. The number of instances in which Howard County has put a hold on potentially stolen property has increased nearly threefold since the system was activated, said Capt. Tara Nelson, commander of the criminal investigations bureau for the Howard County police.

"It's a much faster way of getting the information, and it's more efficient," Nelson said. "It alerts us in a much more timely fashion."

While applauding the practice in Howard County, proponents say the databases are most effective when they are regional. If property is stolen in Baltimore, for example, and sold at a shop in Anne Arundel County, it would be useful for that information to be available to both police departments.

The proposed state legislation, which died in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, was designed to facilitate just such a regional approach. Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the chairwoman of the committee, said the legislation did not advance because supporters did not lobby for it.

She said she was not present when the committee heard the bill because she was testifying on another bill.

"Nobody put it on our radar screen," said Conway, a Baltimore Democrat. "Based on what I heard about the bill, it seemed to be a pretty good bill. I'm not saying it's a bad bill. I'm just saying that they didn't necessarily lobby the Senate."

Conway said she never heard from the pawnshop industry about the legislation, but several opponents said they actively lobbied against the bill because it was focused narrowly on pawnshops.


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