Barry Brantley has worked as a manager at Affordable Jewelry & Pawn in Durham for 18 years and can tell when something is not right about a customer.
Maybe a man is trying to sell a laptop but cannot remember the password. Or a woman has a nice acoustic guitar but no stories of playing it.
“You get a feel for it after a while,” Brantley said.
Brantley used to turn those items away because, for a pawn shop, buying stolen goods is bad business. By law, the shop sends records of items it takes in to police every day; in the past, if one turned out to be stolen, Durham police would have likely hauled it away, and Brantley would have lost the money he paid for it.
But starting last year, police in Durham began paying pawn shops for stolen goods when they confiscate them. They say partnering with pawn shops helps them recover more stolen property and catch more thieves.
In March, the city allotted $36,000 for the program, and police have spent $23,000 so far. The money changes Brantley’s approach to stolen merchandise.
“It gives us more incentive to buy something that might be borderline,” he said. “Before we didn’t want it, period.”
That is the incentive the Durham Police Department wants to give pawn shops; the most recent Durham police procedural manual urges pawn shops to buy items they deem suspicious.
Charles Britt, the Durham police investigator who works with pawn shops full time, said the recovery of stolen property and time saved tracking down criminals is worth the money spent on the items.
In the program’s first year, Britt reported 65 instances in which one of Durham’s 12 pawn shops suspected stolen property, bought it and reported their suspicion to police. Twelve of those items were, in fact, stolen, and nine arrests have been made because of the tips.
Durham police say those tips led to the recovery of about $66,000 in stolen property.
Britt pushed for the reimbursement program in Durham after learning that Greensboro police have long been reimbursing pawn shops for stolen goods.
“I want more tips,” Britt said. “I want more recovered stolen property.”
There are a few key restrictions on reimbursement: a payment of more than $250 requires special permission; shops are reimbursed only for items stolen in Durham, and the department will seize items and reimburse shop owners only when the victim is willing to press charges.
The program can surprise theft victims, who sometimes consider the pawn shop part of the unsavory trade that brought them distress.
Marcie Pachino suffered a string of burglaries in late April. The thieves were looking for quick cash – they even took her daughter’s piggy bank – and so Pachino was not surprised when the two bikes that were stolen showed up at a National Pawn shop on Guess Road.
But she said she was shocked to learn that Durham police would pay the shop for the bikes.
“Why the heck are our tax dollars going, through the police, to buy back stolen property?” Pachino asked in an interview.
But Britt said the reimbursement helped him find the bikes quickly. He said the shop had tipped him off to the suspicious bikes after the thief brought them in on consecutive days, an unusual behavior. Britt looked up the serial number for one of the bikes, saw it had been reported stolen, and let the officer working the case know.
“This is how I want the program to work,” he said.
While public perception of pawn shops is often negative, Britt says Durham shops have had a good relationship with police for at least 20 years. Nine of them are owned by either Picasso Pawn or National Jewelry & Pawn, both North Carolina companies. He said the program improves that relationship, because a police officer showing up to recover stolen goods no longer means a financial loss for the pawn shop.
Police relationships with pawn shops are aided by strict record-keeping requirements, at the state level and in most cities, which regulate the atypical lending that takes place there. The shops make loans, holding property as collateral. They also buy and sell secondhand property.
State law requires pawn customers to present valid state identification to sell or take out a loan on an item. It also requires the shops to hold items for at least seven days before selling them, giving police time to look into the items.
A.T. Brown, supervisor of commercial property crime for the Greensboro Police Department, said his department works well with pawn shops but had some difficulties with compliance. Brown said police in Greensboro do not have many tools available to punish pawn shops for lax record-keeping, and reimbursement helps. If police recover stolen goods at a shop that were not reported, the shop does not get reimbursed.
Greensboro has spent about $7,000 on reimbursement in the past year and has recovered about $41,000 in stolen goods, he said.
Police departments in Raleigh and elsewhere say there are other ways to work closely with pawn shops. Charlotte police say they also rely on pawn shop owners to find stolen goods, and maintain the relationships by visiting the shops often.
“We make a concerted effort to reach out and touch every pawn shop every week,” said Allan Rutledge, a Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department captain who oversees the pawn unit.
Rutledge said pawn shops understand that losses on stolen property are a cost of doing business. The department seizes the goods and provides a record of the loss.
“They have to be careful about the property they receive,” Rutledge said.
Bob Moulton, owner of National Jewelry & Pawn, which has four shops in Durham and three in Raleigh, said he appreciates Durham’s approach because it aids cooperation with police, but he is not keen on purchasing more stolen goods, even to help catch crooks.
Moulton considers himself a crusader against the public perception of pawn shops that fed into Pachino’s incredulous response to the reimbursement program. His company’s website proclaims that it is “changing the perception of the pawn business one customer at a time!” He says less than a tenth of a percent of items that come through the shop turn out to be stolen, and he wants to keep it that way.
“We go out of our way to have a reputation and discourage people from ever bringing stolen goods into our store,” he said.
He believes that law enforcement and the public should focus more on other places where stolen goods are sold, from online marketplaces to flea markets.
“We’re the scapegoat,” Moulton said of pawn shops. “Law enforcement and other people need to give the same oversight to all the businesses that deal in pre-owned merchandise.”
But that oversight is challenging in the other places, especially websites. Britt said that officers working theft cases do look at resale websites individually, but there is no permanent investigator as there is for pawn shops.