Wednesday, March 18, 2009

One Man’s Trash….

For many years, when citizens found items, they’d often call the police department and we’d come pick them up. I’m not talking about weapons, working DVD players, laptops and other electronics—we can check the serial numbers on all of those items to see if they’ve been reported stolen. I’m not talking about a discarded purse where the contents clearly appear to have been picked through—that could be evidence from a robbery. The found items we see most often fall into a few categories: broken electronic equipment, mangled car parts and kids bicycles. All of these items are stored in our property custody area at police headquarters—in the same space where we store evidence. In January, we stopped accepting those found items. Why? Well, to say the quarters are cramped would be an understatement. We have items piled up, filling old jail cells, in just about every space imaginable. To put it bluntly, we can’t run the risk that we don’t have space to store evidence, because we’re storing a tire. (And yes, we literally have flat tires that have been turned in as found property.) If you’re asking how we got to this point, well, I’ll tell you what I know.

We have to get permission from prosecutors to purge items that were once seized for evidence, but that are now no longer needed. We have thousands of items that fall in that category. We’re working with the Circuit Attorney to get rid of those items but it’s taking some time for everyone to go through the evidence to ensure that it is indeed, no longer vital. Reason two that has property custody packed, is that when found property goes unclaimed, the Department usually auctions it. The proceeds go to the Police Relief Association, which helps police officers and their families when officers are killed or injured, among other things. Well the Department hasn’t auctioned items for about two years for a few reasons. Among them, we switched from an on-site auction to a website auction in 2006. Since it was our first time doing that, we wanted to examine the process after a year to see if we liked how it worked and then decide whether we should continue to use it. The year came and went but the examination never happened. Meanwhile, property kept building up. The last reason property custody is full is that for some time the property custody area was understaffed—the idea two or three people being able to efficiently move tens of thousands of items in and out is downright laughable.

We’ve taken steps to fix the problems in property custody. We’ve proposed a budget item that would allow us to build a new facility, although in these tough fiscal times, we realize that might not happen. So in the meantime, we’re looking at other options for storing property. We’ve increased staffing. We’re working with the Circuit Attorney’s office to purge old evidence. We’ve launched an area on our website for people to claim property if they believe it’s been turned in here. We’ve begun the legal process to send the unclaimed found property off to auction.

The law doesn’t mandate us to accept found property. Actually, the law is written in a way that makes it quite a hassle for citizens who find property. Chapter 447 of the Revised Missouri State Statute says that citizens who find property must file an affidavit with a circuit clerk, promising that the property is still in the same condition. If no one claims the property, the finder can eventually keep it. That’s asking a lot. Picture it, you’ve found something, you want to do the right thing and get it back to its rightful owner, but you have to take time out of your busy day and go to the courthouse?? Doesn’t seem right. We didn’t think so either, so for years, we’d take it off your hands. I have to tell you, we weren’t getting a lot of calls for items in good condition. I have a sneaking suspicion that when most people find those things, they probably live by the finders, keepers rule. Still, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure right? So when a citizen handed us, in good faith, a rearview mirror from a car, an old basketball hoop, or a television with the screen smashed out, we took it. We also accepted hundreds and hundreds of children’s bicycles. Most of them are in not so great condition, but hey, if you’re 10 years old and lose your bike, the condition of the bike is hardly at the top of your list of concerns!!!

We’re happy when we can help reunite a kid with his/her only legal mode of transportation, but we’re even happier when evidence that we’ve stored is one of the elements that leads to a successful prosecution of a criminal. At this point, we have to choose. Either we continue to collect found property and max out the space in property custody, or we stop collecting found property to save what little space we have for evidence. We chose the latter. I hope you think we made the right decision.