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Police: Online database helps solve property crimes

By Emily Priddy

December 16, 2013

For the last year, the Internet has helped Cape Girardeau police reunite crime victims with stolen property ranging from pool cues to power tools.

In November 2012, the city adopted an ordinance requiring pawnshops and similar businesses to enter their daily transactions into an online database police can search when items are reported stolen.

The policy is strikingly similar to a Missouri statute passed in 2002, but it takes the state law -- which focuses on pawnshops -- a step further, requiring most secondhand dealers, including temporary businesses, to participate.

Antique stores, car dealers, charity thrift shops, gun shows and estate liquidation services are exempt from the ordinance, as are coin and jewelry shops that had business licenses before the ordinance's passage.

Darin Hickey, public information officer for the Cape Girardeau Police Department, said in its first year, the LeadsOnline program has helped police solve several theft and burglary cases, including some from out of town.

"We have located items that were stolen in another jurisdiction that were sold here," he said.

Hickey did not have hard numbers on the program's role in solving property crimes, but he said since the ordinance went into effect Nov. 5, 2012, the department has used LeadsOnline to solve several cases involving valuable items.

Joe Wilson, owner of Money Time Check Cashers, 2112 Broadway, said entering information for repeat clients can become tedious. But most customers are patient, and the small investment of time can yield big benefits for police and crime victims.

"It's been a boon, I know, to the local authorities," he said.

Wilson said once employees learned the online system -- which came with a bit of a learning curve -- the process speeded up.

"Now that we know what we're doing, it doesn't take but just a couple of minutes," he said.

Wilson likened the ordinance to laws requiring tobacco customers to present proof of age.

"It's just like you can't buy cigarettes [until] you're so old," he said. "That's just the law."

Rob Lauer, who handles legislative activities for the Missouri Pawnbrokers Association, said he and other pawnbrokers supported the state law when it went into effect in 2002.

"It's fine," he said. "We were all for it from the get-go. There was very little, if any, opposition from pawnbrokers."

In a news release Friday, the Cape Girardeau Police Department provided several examples of cases solved in the past year with the help of LeadsOnline.

Police returned a guitar to its owner in Scott City, recovered a generator worth more than $1,000 for a theft victim in Illinois and identified several pieces of stolen jewelry that helped officers solve a string of burglaries, the release stated.

Officers also use LeadsOnline to monitor trends and identify suspicious activity, Hickey said.

"We use it a lot for research -- looking at trends, looking at what's being sold, who's selling it. If there's somebody who in particular may be selling large quantities of stuff, that can give us a starting point for an investigation of a theft," he said.

According to statistics from the Missouri State Highway Patrol, property crime reports in Cape Girardeau were down 22.6 percent for the first 10 months of this year, compared to the same period last year.

What role, if any, LeadsOnline played in the reduction is unclear. But the drop is striking in a city property-crime rate of which -- counting robberies, burglaries, larcenies and vehicle thefts -- was more than twice the statewide rate last year.

Cape Girardeau, with a population of 38,079, had 2,694 property crimes in 2012 -- a rate of about 7 per every 100 residents. By comparison, the statewide rate was 3 in 100, while the countywide rate was 4 in 100, according to MSHP statistics.

Lauer said contrary to popular belief, fencing stolen items through pawnshops is rare.

In almost 32 years as a pawnbroker, Lauer -- who said he handles several hundred items a week at North County Pawn Center in Jennings, Mo. -- has had only 58 items confiscated as stolen, and only seven of every 100,000 items logged on LeadsOnline in the past 11 years have turned up as stolen, he said.

He said honest business owners have no reason to oppose the program.

"If you think you're taking something that's stolen, you shouldn't be doing it," Lauer said.

Crime victims can help police recover stolen property by providing detailed information about missing items, Hickey said.

He recommended taking photographs of jewelry and keeping a record of serial numbers for items such as electronics or power tools in case they are stolen.

"A lot of those are very unique when you buy a high-end ring, so a photo always helps," he said.

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