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Police seek to beef up online tracking

Code change may aid in stolen goods search

February 16, 2014

The Great Falls Police Department is working to keep better tabs on stolen property around town.

The City Commission is soon expected to set a public hearing for March 4 to discuss changes to city code pertaining to pawnshops and secondhand stores.

GFPD now uses software known as LeadsOnline to crossreference reported stolen items with transactions at pawnshops, secondhand stores, recycling centers and other businesses that stolen goods might travel through.

If approved, the code change will require Great Falls pawnshops, secondhand stores or valuable article dealers where the businesses engage in the purchase, sale, trade, barter, consignment or exchange of secondhand goods to keep a record of the transactions and enter them into the online system weekly.

The requirements do not apply to donation-based secondhand shops like Goodwill where donors are not paid for the goods.

The code change also will require anyone trying to pawn or sell items to provide valid ID. Some area pawnshops already fingerprint those who bring in items to pawn or sell, according to Capt. John Schaffer, GFPD investigative services.

GFPD has been using LeadsOnline for several years and Schaffer said that the software company works with pawnshops and business to ensure the software interfaces with their existing accounting systems, so the shop owners don't have to enter transactions twice.

The city will continue to pay for the software, $3,600, but the code change will require pawnshops and others to enter their transactions into the system.

GFPD purchases the software with funds from assets recovered in narcotic investigations, Schaffer said, so the purchase doesn't come out of taxpayer-funded budget lines.

Pawnshops will enter the data weekly, and the code also will require them to hold items they purchase for at least 14 days so that GFPD has time to crosscheck items with reported thefts. Pawned items are kept for 30 days and only about 10 percent of area pawnshop transactions are from purchases, Schaffer said.

Many police departments nationwide use LeadsOnline, Schaffer said, so they can cast a wider net to track and recover stolen property.

"It's very handy for us," Schaffer said. "Our pawn shops in Great Falls are very good about smelling out a rat, but every now and then an item gets by."

Pawn shop managers reached for comment Sunday afternoon were generally enthusiastic about the proposal, with several saying that they already used the system voluntarily.

"The legitimate places of business are going to have no problem with this thing at all," said Corey Pierce, a general manager at Alias Smith & Jones Pawn.

Pierce also noted that the proposal will extend some requirements for pawnshops to other secondhand stores, including those that sell antiques and used jewelry. "It just puts everybody on the same playing field," he said.

Currently, police have to go to pawnshops to check for stolen property and often advise residents to do the same if they've been robbed.

The LeadsOnline system helps make the search more efficient and effective, Schaffer said. It also gives police another tool to track stolen goods, which are often linked to narcotics activity.

"We just believe this is one way of impacting that also. So many people break into homes to steal whatever they can to support a drug habit," Schaffer said. "We believe that keeping track of possible stolen goods is in the best interest of our community. If we make it a little more difficult for the criminals to do business, we're going to be a better place."

Staff Writer Eric Dietrich contributed to this story.

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