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Storing, handling found property can be challenging for police


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Sgt. Rod Vawter displays some items kept in the property room of the Greenfield Police Department. ''Very seldom does someone come in (to claim something),'' Vawter said. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)
Sgt. Rod Vawter displays some items kept in the property room of the Greenfield Police Department. ''Very seldom does someone come in (to claim something),'' Vawter said. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)

Sgt. Rod Vawter displays some items kept in the property room of the Greenfield Police Department. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)
Sgt. Rod Vawter displays some items kept in the property room of the Greenfield Police Department. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)

Operations Division Commander Tom Harrison is surrounded by an assortment of found items - including a pink striped purse containing cash and a smartphone - housed at the Hancock County Sheriff's Department. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)
Operations Division Commander Tom Harrison is surrounded by an assortment of found items - including a pink striped purse containing cash and a smartphone - housed at the Hancock County Sheriff's Department. (Tom Russo/Daily Reporter)


GREENFIELD — The pink striped purse has been sitting in the basement of the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department since August.

Tucked inside is $310, a day planner, a Verizon Smartphone and a Coach wallet – all things you’d think a person would be interested in calling police to claim.

Except for one – a silver marijuana pipe.

The purse was found in the middle of a road in Morristown by a good Samaritan who decided to turn it over to law enforcement in hopes officers could locate the bag’s owner.

But when police went looking for the girl, they found she no longer lived at the house in Carthage listed on her ID, and the post office had no forwarding address.

And so, the purse remains at the sheriff’s department, waiting for an owner who might never show up.

“Who else do you turn it over to but the police?” Sheriff Mike Shepherd said. “But if we don’t find anyone who wants to claim it, we’re stuck with it.”

Most law enforcement agencies operate a lost-and-found program, a responsibility left over from the days when police work was as much about lending a neighbor a hand as catching a hardened criminal.

In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for items to all be tossed in a box without much thought.

Today, handling found property is a much more sophisticated process than it used to be. When an item is turned over to police, it is assigned a number and logged into the department’s computer system, making it easy to find if the owner turns up. Along with the catalog number, a description of each item is included in the file, so an officer can find them later by keyword search.

But for whatever reason, dozens of items remain unclaimed.

 

Forgotten treasures

A white sword shaped like a dragon, found in a Greenfield park. A sawed-off shotgun turned in sometime back in the 1980s.

All manner of items end up in the property room long after their owners have forgotten they’re gone.

It’s rare that law enforcement has the opportunity to reunite owners with their belongings, said Sgt. Rod Vawter, who oversees the property room at the Greenfield Police Department.

Maybe they’ve forgotten. Maybe they moved on. Maybe they’re still looking.

In many cases, police say they’ll never know.

“Very seldom does someone come in (to claim something),” Vawter said.

Operations Division Commander Tom Harrison, who oversees the property at the sheriff’s department, says he has somewhat better luck. There’s no official data tracking how many items make it back to their owners, but Harrison estimates it could be as much as 50 percent.

Meanwhile, the items, packed away in boxes and stacked on shelves, collect dust until the department determines what to do with them.

Last year, the sheriff’s department submitted some items to the county auction, which benefited the county general fund. Harrison said he tries to revisit the collection every six months to make sure there have been no new developments, such as an item being reported stolen.

Occasionally, items are returned to the person who found them – a decent reward in some cases.

A few years ago, a jogger exercising on her lunch hour stumbled across 13 $100 bills strewn across her path. The sheriff’s department kept the money for about eight months, and after running traces on it and testing it to make sure it wasn’t counterfeit, decided to give it back to the finder.

At GPD, a found item’s future is up to department officials after 90 days of waiting for someone to come forward. At that point, the department takes ownership of the item and may destroy it or sell it at a public auction.

Or, if officers are lucky, they find a way to put an old item to new use.

If drugs or drug paraphernalia are found with an item, officers can use them to train K9 units. That results in drug-sniffing dogs that are more reliable, Greenfield Police Chief John Jester said.

Officers can also use found items to keep their own skills sharp.

“We’ve had inoperable guns … that won’t work or toy guns that we’ve actually been able to use for situational training,” Jester said.

That dragon-shaped sword, for example, became a valuable training tool for crime scene investigators, Vawter said.

Evidence technicians regularly have to photograph crime scenes, and Vawter challenged them to practice taking a picture of the sword without showing their own reflections or a glare from the camera flash in the blade.

Bolt-cutters left behind by a burglar also found a new home at the department, Vawter said. Crime-scene techs used to have to call the fire department any time they needed bolt-cutters. Now, the very equipment once used to commit crime helps officers investigate it.

 

Valuable to someone

For a police officer, there’s little more frustrating than an unsolved mystery.

In a property room, there are dozens.

“It’s rewarding when you get stuff back to people, but it’s always tugging on you because you know you’ve got stuff there that needs to go back … to who it belongs to,” Harrison said.

And there’s no way to determine an item’s value just by looking at it, Vawter added.

“To somebody, it might have a good value, handed down from a grandfather who passed away,” he said. “It may be a family heirloom.”

On a recent afternoon, Vawter pulled out a 2011 case that took up at least half a dozen boxes.

There’s sometimes a fine line between found property and evidence, which is often stored in the same locked vault, Vawter pointed out.

For example, the 2011 case was originally tied to a fraud arrest. Bags upon bags of merchandise were confiscated because it was believed the suspect could have bought the items illegally.

“It may have been purchased with fraudulent money, but we don’t know where from, so we’re stuck with that piece of property,” Vawter said. “You’re kind of in a pinch.”

Then again, the items could also have been stolen from someone else. There’s no way to know for sure, Vawter said.

It might be nice to give unclaimed items to the needy, but there’s no good way to do so fairly, Vawter added.

He picked up a plush teddy bear sporting an “I love you” sweatshirt.

“To a little kid, it’d be his best friend, but I cannot just pick a little boy and say, ‘Here, you can have this,’” he said.

Vawter said he’s researching the process for turning items over to an auction company, which would auction the items for the department and then take a cut of the profits.

One thing members of the public can do to protect themselves before something goes missing is write down all their important items’ serial numbers, Shepherd said.

It’s a tedious practice, but one that proves critical when an item is lost or stolen.

Of course, serial numbers only help for items that have them, Jester added

“The other day, I think we got a bowling ball,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to identify a bowling ball and who it might belong to.”

For items without serial numbers, officers have to take a person’s word when they call to report that something’s been lost. Police ask detailed questions, trying to help the person identify specific characteristics about the item they lost or the location they lost it.

But more often than not, police never get that chance.

For the officers charged with storing all the property – cash, jewelry and other valuables included – that sometimes seems unbelievable.

“You’d think they’d come looking for it,” Harrison said.

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