To catch a thief: Police, some Cape Girardeau business owners disagree about value of new anti-theft database

Monday, October 8, 2012
Lisa Wolters of Jackson discusses jewelry with Bill Galloway on Saturday at River City Coins in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

Cape Girardeau police are working to convince city leaders to adopt a new online database aimed at recovering stolen goods that sometimes land on the shelves of pawnshops, jewelry stores and businesses that deal in secondhand items.

Owners of several of those businesses, however, say they have yet to be sold on the system known as Leads Online, and suggested that the demands of the electronic tracking system will drive up costs, create an undue burden on small business and perhaps make a few feel forced to relocate outside the city's borders.

The Cape Girardeau City Council is considering the system that has already been implemented by more than 3,600 law-enforcement subscribers and 21,000 investigators nationwide. Several Missouri communities have already implemented the program, including Ballwin, St. Charles, St. Louis, St. Peters, Chesterfield, Berkeley, Kansas City, Creve Coeur, Nixa, Springfield, Nevada and Boonville.

The council was set to vote on the plan at its meeting last week, but the issue was tabled after three merchants expressed concern and urged more study. One of them was Jim Maevers, who owns Pastimes Antiques in downtown Cape Girardeau. Maevers called the suggested changes unrealistic and burdensome.

"It's going to cost labor, it's going to cost extra time," he said. "If this happens, it could really be a detriment to our business."

Mike Sprouse, owner of River City Coins, talks about the business Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012 in Cape Girardeau. (Fred Lynch)

Local cops disagree and said that business owners should not feel intimated by a program that is so simple that new cashiers in other nationwide chains, such as Best Buy, don't realize they comply with this ordinance already.

According to the police department's point man on the project, patrolman Joey Hann, the service will help speed up investigations in a department with limited manpower. Financial detriment, Hann said, will be offset because participation does not require software upgrades.

And if the council adopts the system, Hann said, it would create vast amounts of data that detectives would have at their fingertips to track stolen property.

"My biggest selling point is it's going to return stolen property back to the rightful property owners," said Hann, who works in the department's community service division. "Contrary to popular belief, that's what officers want to do."

Another, Hann said, is that the system created by a Texas-based company would help address a problem that traditionally has pushed the city's crime rate for theft-related crimes above the national average. The number of robberies in Cape Girardeau has swollen during the last decade with 36 offenses reported in 2002 and 94 last year, according to statistics provided by the department. Burglaries were up to 394 in 2011 from 252 in 2002. Thefts also contributed to the 3,880 arrests made last year with the total number of larcenies in 2011 totaling 2,017 -- up from 1,776 in 2002.

For the past six months, the police department has subscribed to Leads Online's subscription service, Hann said. But without amending the ordinance, that is only half the picture, he said. For this to work, Hann said, the so-called pawnshop ordinance needs to be amended to require businesses more susceptible to buying stolen goods to participate.

The proposal, expected to resurface at the council's Oct. 15 meeting, would repeal the existing page-and-a-half ordinance that regulates pawnbrokers and secondhand dealers and replace it with a six-page municipal law. Some of the new language calls for implementing Leads Online. If approved by a majority of the council members, the new stipulations would apply to pawnbrokers and secondhand dealers that engage in the purchase, sale or trade of used articles. That means the new ordinance would also apply to businesses that deal in scrap metal, coins, electronics, videogame systems, jewelers and precious metals and stones.

Under the proposal, those types of businesses -- estimated at about 30 citywide, according to Hann -- would be required to keep records of their transactions. That is required now, Hann said, but some store owners keep more meticulous records than others. Some simply scribble onto notepads, he said.

With the changes, shops would have to log addresses, sex, race and a description of the seller and a correct driver's license number and a digital photograph. Each item must be itemized separately, under the proposal, which some business owners see as another chore to extend their already busy work weeks.

"We're already working 50, 60 hours a week," said Mike Sprouse, who has operated River City Coins here since 1985.

Sprouse suggests that police implement a program in which they inform those dealers who buy or sell the items that were stolen so that they can keep an eye out. If a gun is stolen, notify the pawnshops, he said. If it's a coin, let Sprouse and his competitors know.

"I believe this would be as effective, if not more so," Sprouse said, "than the cumbersome and onerous ordinance as proposed."

A business won't have to upgrade its existing computer system, Hann said, but the new amended ordinance would require business owners to make sure they have functioning computers and Internet service. The ordinance, to the dismay of some, allows the police chief or anyone he designates to have general supervision over all pawnbrokers and secondhand dealers.

The ordinance gives the department the power to inspect these places of business whenever the department deems it necessary to do so. The plan requires police to conduct regular compliance checks as well. Another change to the ordinance considers the soon-to-open Isle Casino Cape Girardeau, banning any new pawnshops from locating within a half-mile of it.

Mayor Harry Rediger said the council is looking to make some adjustments based on the comments made by shop owners last week. Rediger understands, he said, that some businesses are leery of more regulations.

But the mayor seems on board with the changes, at least in principle.

"It's a system that has proved itself to greatly improve on what we have," Rediger said. "I'm excited to be a part of that system."

smoyers@semissourian.com

388-3642

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