To catch a thief

The Baltimore Sun

When the burglar takes off with your favorite charm bracelet, grandmother's heirloom silver or the family's new global positioning system, the expectations of ever seeing them again are pretty slim. If they end up with a local pawn broker - as stolen items often do - the ability of Baltimore police to search an inventory of pawn shops is hampered by an outdated hand-filing system. And with police receiving 20,000 reports a month from pawn dealers, the needle-in-the-haystack cliche fits.

But there's an easy way to streamline the system. City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake has proposed legislation that would require pawn brokers to electronically file the same information they now report to police on items brought to their businesses. A photograph also would be required. A police officer suggested the improvement during a meeting the council president had last year with the officers. The City Council should approve the measure and give police the tools they need to effectively investigate property crimes.

Two months ago, the Police Department's pawn shop unit took the initiative and began encouraging the city's 37 pawn shops and 78 second-hand dealers to file their reports this way. Ms. Rawlings-Blake's bill would mandate it.

This is an idea whose time has surely come. The technology is commonplace - most family photos are e-mailed before they're ever printed. Detectives who are investigating thefts now manually search files stored at police headquarters, work that could take hours. A computer-based search of inventory reports filed via computer could be done at their desks in the police districts and within minutes.

Such a system might increase the chances of police recovering stolen items and returning them to their owners - 7,270 burglaries and 16,496 larcenies were reported to city police last year. That would be a revolutionary outcome.

Howard County has a similar mandate, but a regional or statewide reporting law would be even more helpful in catching a thief.

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