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I want my stuff back

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Investigations Contributor

Burglaries, lost or stolen property, laptops with all of your personal info, gone but not forgotten. So much recovered stuff but no one to give it back to. What's a cop to do?

Tom Shea, a ten-year veteran police officer in Brookline, MA is a man with a vision. is his approach to reuniting people and their stuff.

We've all seen this happen. The chief visits the overflowing property room and suggests a new line in the budget to build an annex. The cop at the front desk suggests a dumpster, instead. The mayor is against overloading the landfill and recommends renting a barge and dumping it all at sea. The city council votes to ship it to New Jersey (no offense to you Giant fans, or should that be "No offense for the Giant fans?")

It certainly feels like just yesterday that the National Crime Information Center was born. Yet, incredibly, NCIC was established in 1967. 1967? I don't know about you, but in '67 I was using an already-old manual Olivetti typewriter and carbon paper. When I first started working for the NYPD, the beat-cops didn't have radios. Rather, they were assigned a "ring time," let's say five or ten minutes after every hour, when they were required to call into the precinct and speak to the sergeant on the switchboard. The best form of record keeping involved index cards and a Rolodex.

While I'm sure that NCIC was a little further advanced than I was, even they were no match for today's average nine-year old with a laptop. So, with all of the technological advances in recording, maintaining, and identifying information, why is so little stolen property ever recovered and returned to its original owner? Well, in large part it is due to the proprietary nature of the information maintained by NCIC. Here is the FBI's description of the NCIC database:

NCIC is a computerized index of criminal justice information (i.e.- criminal record history information, fugitives, stolen properties, missing persons). It is available to Federal, state, and local law enforcement and other criminal justice agencies and is operational 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.


So, when my daughter's MP3 player is swiped, and neither she nor I can find the serial number; what do we do? Your wife's gold personalized etched and signed Swarovski crystal turtle doves are stolen; what do you do? Well, up to now you would call the police and make a report with a brief description. The officer will usually jot something down on the report like, "detailed list to follow," and you would call the station later in the day to get the report number, and make an insurance claim. One thing that will probably not happen is the "detailed list to follow," at least not one that is sent to the police.

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Usually motivated by the fine print in your homeowners policy, you will be begin to search for original bills of sale, credit card transactions, warranties, serial numbers, and maybe even a photo. But you're no longer thinking about the police, you are thinking about whether or not the insurance company will pay out. And the police are no longer thinking of you, either. Your report has been filed "as-is," with minimal descriptions and only rarely with serial numbers. It's more than likely you will never see this property again. Why? Because your jewelry and electronic equipment looks very much like everyone else's, and even if the police recover large quantities of stolen TVs and MP3 and DVD players, they have no way to link them directly back to you.

Enter Officer Tom Shea of the Brookline (MA) Police Department. Shea, who's interests include skiing, boating, and vacations in Aruba, is a patrol cop who has taken hundreds of stolen or missing property reports throughout his years on the job, and almost never saw anyone reunited with their property. When I asked Shea why that was, he had some very insightful answers. For example, Shea told me the following:

  • The FBI reports that only two percent of all stolen property is ever recovered.
  • As a consumer society, we increasingly accumulate "stuff:" iPods, laptops, DVDs, cell phones, camcorders, etc.Consumers almost never record ownership information about their property (serial number, description, photographs, etc.)
  • When stolen or lost property is recovered, police have no idea who it belongs to. It's extremely difficult to return items to their owners without this ownership information


Shea knew first-hand how much little information actually made it into the NCIC stolen property database, and how user-unfriendly the NCIC system was. Most importantly, ordinary citizens were persona non grata. Sorry folks, law enforcement only. This exclusivity to law enforcement is not a bad thing, yet seemed to have planted a seed in Shea to create a database wherein people could register their property, even prior to it ever being stolen, thus providing law enforcement with a means of linking it back to and contacting the proper owners.

For the past two years, Shea and his team, consisting of his Brookline PD buddies, David Spector, Tom Ward, John Sullivan and Robert Murphy, set about the development of the database.

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This two-pronged approach:

  1. Citizens entering their contact information along with their property information, serial numbers, descriptive markings, and photographs, and
  2. Law enforcement agencies checking recovered stolen property against the database, working 24/7 to make this a reality. Shea and his team have been talking to property clerks, police departments, burglary units, and federal agencies, and finding lots of support for this innovative idea.


The result? The beginnings of a powerful database on the internet that serves law enforcement personnel and consumers. This database should become a huge repository of data that consumers and businesses could use to record information about their valuables prior to their loss by theft. If recovered by police, these items could be instantly searched for on this database by the investigating officers using any identifying characteristics such as serial number, make, model, description or other identifying features. Photographs can also be uploaded to the database for ease of identification. When an ID is made, it's just a simple matter of contacting the owners by e-mail or telephone.

Shea maintains that his whole intent behind is to get the recovered property back to the owners as efficiently and quickly as possible, while forging a workable relationship between the consumer and law enforcement. What a unique concept--citizens and the police working together..

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