Pawn Shop Network helps cops collar criminals
(IDG) -- Lst year, the Miami-Dade Police Department grew frustrated when it learned that suspected serial killer Andrew Cunanan had traded in a stolen gold coin at a Miami pawnshop just eight days before allegedly murdering fashion designer Gianni Versace in July 1997.
Cunanan had used his real name and address in registering the transaction. But the department's paper-based pawn registration system, implemented to track stolen items and maintain pawn records, was so slow that this information did not get to the police until after the Versace murder and Cunanan's subsequent suicide.
The lesson learned: Delays in data transfer can be deadly.
Looking to prevent this kind of latency from further stifling crime prevention, the police department worked with telecommunications company BellSouth to implement a computer-based system, dubbed the "Pawn Shop Network," that sends information to the department at the end of each day.
With the paper system, "it would take a week, sometimes in excess of a month, to get the data entered," says Ram Sukhdeo, a computer services manager at the Miami-Dade Police Department. "Sometimes, there was stuff not accounted for because of a backlog."
Previously, clerks manually entered data from paper forms into a mainframe system. The new system is not much more complicated than that. In the new network, BellSouth's Native Mode Language Interconnection service enables pawn shops to upload information to police headquarters via a PC and a modem.
Some 30 local pawn dealerships are involved, and police hope to expand the network to include between 300 and 500 locations. So far, the department has documented that the new process has led to four arrests.
Pawn shops deploy one of several pawn-tracking software programs. Police capture the information on Windows NT servers and track the data via a secure intranet Web server, says Eduardo Moreira, a senior systems analyst at the department.
"One of the main incentives that basically gets shops online is [that] it's much easier to send data via a click of a couple of buttons," Moreira says. Pawn shops not yet on the system send data via floppy disks.
But the new system still has not eliminated paper forms, which has left at least one shop owner, Ariel Acosta of Ariel's Jewelry, in Miami, complaining that the program has not met its promise of reducing paperwork. Although he praised efforts to computerize data, Acosta says his shop now must submit both computer and paper files.
"We still have to send forms in on paper every other day, and you've still got to do the whole thing on the computer," Acosta says.
Additionally, it is not always easy to send the forms via computer, and his shop now has to employ someone to run the PC, Acosta says.
Paper documentation is still necessary because pawn shops must forward a thumbprint of customers, says Cmdr. Ira Freuer, commander of the systems development bureau in the police department. Although the department is looking into computerizing this process as well, doing so would require a change in the state statute, Freuer says.
Despite the system's inability to handle fingerprints, it meets its primary goal, which is streamlining data access and helping to catch criminals before they can do further damage to society, Freuer says.
"It was basically done in reaction to the Cunanan [investigation]," Freuer says. "If we had that information available in real time, investigators might have caught onto that, and [Cunanan would not] have been able to commit any more crimes."
Paul Krill is InfoWorld's associate news editor.
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