With old system broken, Flint police chief changes pawn shop sales

By Ron Fonger | rfonger1@mlive.com
This article originally appeared on MLive.
February 11, 2015

FLINT, MI — Pawn shop employees have spent countless hours filling out paperwork for police every time they make a transaction in Flint.

But for years, those paper slips became little more than clutter at police headquarters, put away in boxes without being entered into the database designed to help identify stolen property, according to Police Chief James W. Tolbert.

“We have simply placed the pawn slips in boxes, unopened and stored away,” Tolbert wrote in a Feb. 2 memorandum to emergency manager Jerry Ambrose. “I cannot imagine what we have missed in stolen evidence and persons who commit burglary on a regular basis.”

Ambrose signed an ordinance Feb. 2, amending the reporting process for pawn stores, junk dealers and second-hand stores by requiring that they report sales and purchases electronically.

Tolbert told Ambrose that Leads Online, which bills itself as the nation’s largest online investigation system for law enforcement, will provide its software to stores with the cost added to merchants’ license fees — something he believes “will have an effect on those who burglarize homes in Flint.”

The revised city ordinance approved by Ambrose also requires businesses to transmit photos of customers who sell items in addition to the descriptions of merchandise involved in each transaction.

Police say the current process at one time worked well.

It involved merchants filling out pawn slips, detailing the articles purchased, the price and identification of the buyer or person pawning the item.

Merchants continue to send the slips to police on a daily basis, according to Tolbert’s memo, and the information was at one time entered by volunteers into a database.

“I have learned the database broke years ago and (was) never repaired,” Tolbert’s memo says. “I found out the … volunteers have not been here at least five years and no one has done anything with the pawn slips we have been receiving.”

Tolbert was appointed police chief 16 months ago by former emergency manager Darnell Earley and said almost immediately that police chiefs from around Genesee County were in agreement that a regional system was needed.

The chief’s memo says he expects other cities and townships to adopt ordinances similar to the one Ambrose has approved “so there will be a regional strategy to burglary.”

Representatives of several Flint pawn shops said they were aware of the coming change in reporting but declined to comment.

Mark Aubrey, president of the Michigan Pawnbrokers Association, was unaware of the change in Flint, but said his organization has been working with state legislators on a statewide system “that would benefit not only law enforcement, but also the pawnbrokers and consumers.”

“A statewide electronic system would benefit all parties,” he said. “However, it has to be done the right way. Right now local municipalities are mandating different rules and fees which make it unfair to some, which is why we are working close with state legislators to create a statewide system.”

Flint Councilwoman Vicki VanBuren, chairwoman of the council’s public safety committee, said the collapse of the pawn shop reporting system happened over time as the police lost resources and struggled to keep all of the department’s systems functioning.

“Back in the day we had all kinds of people who worked there,” VanBuren said. “It’s something that got forgotten, (and) something that we’re suffering from. “We have to advance. We have have to use technology (so we can) make better use of officers’ time.”

Flint Police Capt. Collin Birnie said it’s been possible to pull information about stolen merchandise from the present system — just not easy.

“It just got more 21st Century,” Birnie said of the new system. “It’s going to make a big difference.”

Flint Township Police Chief George Sippert, who has been among area police chiefs pushing for an electronic reporting system, said other cities and townships will likely follow Flint’s lead.

Like the city, the township has relied on paper records from pawn shops.

“I do feel it’s important that law enforcement in Genesee County kind of get on the same page when it comes to this type of program,” Sippert said. “It’s going to help our detectives solve a lot of crimes and recover a lot of property.”

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