Ending the Pawnshop Paper Trail

Police know technology can help make pawnshop transaction information more useful in investigations, but debates over standards have slowed progress.

by / August 1, 2001
When police in Pasadena, Calif., finally solved the murder of an 89-year-old woman several years ago, they had spent hundreds of hours reviewing stacks of paper pawn slips - the forms pawn dealers are required to fill out with every transaction. From the pawn slips, police eventually tracked several items stolen from the home during the robbery/murder and located the perpetrator who sold the items to pawn dealers.

But this method of tracking down paper-based pawnshop purchases, and perpetrators, is arduous and time-consuming. As a result, several police departments are now experimenting with computer systems designed to make the process more efficient.

The Minneapolis Police Department is experimenting with a voluntary system and expects to go statewide within the next couple of years. The Los Angeles Police Department is also experimenting with a voluntary system, and there is a push to create a statewide system in California.

Evidence it Works
In 1994 Minneapolis noticed a considerable jump in the number of pawnshops in the city, so the city council put a moratorium on any new pawn businesses. "We were buried in paperwork and just werent doing the job," said Lt. Phil Hafvenstein, Automated Pawn System (APS) project coordinator of the Minneapolis Police Department.

What resulted was a uniting of forces: The pawn industry, state regulators and police got together and developed the Automated Pawn System, an electronic reporting system. "We wanted to identify and minimize illegal activity because we know that a business that deals with used property is going to be compromised by evil doers," Hafvenstein said.

The voluntary program, which was implemented in 1997 by the Minneapolis Police Departments License and Investigation Division, has since decreased the cost of regulation and enforcement of the citys ordinances and increased the recovery of stolen property.

Pawnshop owners now enter the information they gather from their customers into a computer and send it electronically to the Minneapolis Police Department. Pawnbrokers are required to transmit pawn slips daily. The information is uploaded at the close of each business day and winds up in a central state repository.

"When we got started we didnt have a single pawn shop in Minneapolis that owned a computer," he said. "Six months [later] you couldnt take their computers away if you tried. My hat is off to the industry because they saw the need to be regulated, and not only from the citys standpoint, but from their own. They [said] We are a regulated industry. This is what we do to help ensure that our customers are on the up and up, and when something does sneak by it gets back to the right owner."

Hafvenstein said nearly 40 agencies participate in the system and the SQL Server database contains more than 700,000 items, with more than 24,000 added each month. Subscribers to APS include second-hand businesses and law enforcement agencies throughout the state that use it to check on stolen goods. Hafvenstein said the hits on stolen property have increased by 300 percent since APS was implemented, and participation in the system is growing rapidly.

In Los Angeles, about 112 pawnshops participate in a voluntary system hosted by the Los Angeles Police Department. The LAPD uses a basic piece of software developed specifically for pawnbrokers. A source said the department uses the system to track illegal guns and is making about 40 arrests a year as a result.

Hocking It to the State
So far, the system is working in L.A., but that may not help the system go statewide. The California Legislature passed a law in January that would require all pawn dealers and secondhand shops in the state to electronically submit standard forms for every transaction. But the law will not be enforced until the California Department of Justice and the pawn dealers can establish a format. For now, discussion appears to be deadlocked. Police sources that were instrumental in getting the law passed say the Department of Justice is sitting on its hands. The Department of Justice says it was hamstrung by unworkable legislation.

Most sources agree, however, that the current paper forms and the system as a whole are inadequate, and a more detailed form that can be electronically transmitted to police departments is needed. The current system in California has pawn dealers filling out paper forms and putting them in the mail. When police receive the forms - up to 4,000 per day in some jurisdictions - they are filed and forgotten until they are needed for a case. If critical information exists on those forms, police must go through them by hand to find it.

"What weve got is a paper system, largely antiquated, that were still using. Its very labor-intensive," said Mike Broderick, assistant chief of the Bureau of Criminal Information and Analysis at the California Department of Justice. "We have less than 50 percent of all the transaction information that takes place during the year."

So far, local jurisdictions are proving that an electronic pawn system has merit. But California and Minnesota will have to come up with workable standards in order to implement statewide systems.
Jim McKay, Justice and Public Safety Editor Justice and Public Safety Editor