The Cobb Board of Commissioners is considering an ordinance that would require pawn shops and precious metal dealers in unincorporated Cobb to participate in an online digital database. The system would allow police to access information and photos of pawn store inventory and customers. That would require photos to be taken not only of items being pawned, but also of the customers pawning them.
Some store owners see it as an invasion of privacy by police.
“As a business, it’s a good thing to always have the items reported. I think the thing you’re going to find most objectionable from most business owners is they want you to take pictures of the person doing the transaction,” said Fred Baker, owner of Kennesaw Pawn, 17262 N. Roberts Road, Kennesaw, off Cobb Parkway.
Baker’s store wouldn’t be affected by the rule unless the city of Kennesaw adopted a similar ordinance because it does not lie in unincorporated Cobb County.
Still, he thinks it will turn customers away.
“If I’m going to be photographed when I go to Walmart, I’m not going to go,” Baker said.
No state or federal maintained system exists so police have opted to use a private contractor for the service.
Barbara O’Brian, director of government relations for Cash America, is concerned about the county contracting with a private vendor for the database. Cash America operates pawn shops nationwide, and one of its stores lies in unincorporated Cobb at 925 Veterans Memorial Highway SW near Mableton Parkway.
A private vendor would also carry a cost that would be passed along to business owners, and ultimately to their customers.
The proposed ordinance says the chief of police or his designee will choose the database, and a fee for each transaction reported through the system will be charged to each business. That fee isn’t known yet because it is based on the vendor and the county. Since the county has not chosen a service, there is no contract — or fee — yet.
“We’re concerned with the cost associated with the different requirements of equipment and added capturing of the customer’s photo,” O’Brian said. “We’re also concerned with the privacy and integrity of protecting the 99.5 percent of pawn customers that are not associated with any stolen property.”
Fighting bad guys or harassing good guys?
Police say the ordinance is needed to give officers the upper hand. Under the system used now, officers have to visit individual stores to find information.
“What we’re attempting to do with this ordinance is to move us up to the technology of today,” said Cobb County Deputy Chief Tim Cox at a commission meeting earlier this week.
The Great Recession has seen an increase in property crimes, Cox said, and more is needed to ward off thieves.
The database would give officers a central location to find search for property that has been stolen, and he believes that photographs provide a better description of an item than a written report.
It’s not an entirely new idea. Several metro Atlanta counties have implemented similar rules over the past couple of years.
Gwinnett, DeKalb and Cherokee counties all require stores to photograph customers pawning items. Gwinnett uses an automated reporting system. Cherokee only mandates that photographs be stored “safe from corruption, readily identifiable” while DeKalb instructs store owners to keep photos in the negative form and store them as a permanent record.
What we’re doing now
Some business owners maintain that the ordinance on the books is plenty to keep criminals at bay. That ordinance requires pawn stores to keep fingerprints of individuals who pawn items, keep a record of the transaction for no less than four years and submit a daily report to the police. They must also keep a description of the seller and items sold.
“We believe that the intentions of the police while good are being misdirected and overkill with some of the requirements of the proposal,” O’Brian said. “In other words, we know based on our own experience that inked fingerprints have been extremely successful in identifying the criminal and has been successful, especially, in Cobb County.”
She says she has never seen prosecution fail because of a bad fingerprint.
Mike Ritchman, owner of Big Chicken Pawn, 40 Cobb Parkway, believes he already gives police the information they need to find theft suspects.
“We report all of the inventory to the police with serial numbers, model numbers and brand names, so I don’t think (the ordinance) would help that much,” said Ritchman of his store inside the Marietta city limits.
Baker says he is happy to comply with the current ordinance and takes it upon himself to call police when he finds a suspicious item in the store. He once called police when a customer wanted to pawn a stolen laptop and kept him in the store until officers arrived.
Pawn stores only get back about 20 percent of what is sold when a stolen item is confiscated, Baker said, so he does what he can to keep the problematic merchandise out of his business.
“We don’t really want to buy the (stolen) property,” Baker said.
Pawn shops: financial institution or hot spot for crime?
In a down economy most lower and middle class Americans don’t have a large amount of money in savings, O’Brian says, and are turning to their neighborhood pawn shops for emergency cash. Banks don’t loan in small amounts like they did before the financial industry was deregulated in the 1980s, she said, and pawn shops can offer the kind of microloans individuals need when they get in a bind.
She calls them a source of “neighborhood financial services” and maintains the “bad guys” aren’t still going to pawn shops. They’re finding street dealers and taking advantage of Internet auction web sites and flea markets.
Less than one half of one percent of all property that comes into pawn shops nationwide, she said, is identified as suspicious or stolen property.
They are no longer the smoke-filled businesses where deals are made in a back room.
“Pawn shops, unfortunately, are still viewed as the way they used to be,” O’Brian said.
As a former officer, O’Brian says she is passionate about helping police catch thieves. Her company began the idea of electronically delivering information to the police, she said.
“We’ve been there to help them, and we aggressively train our people to work closely with law enforcement,” O’Brian said.
Consideration by the commission
Cobb commissioners will hear public comment at their next meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. July 23 in the second floor meeting room at 100 Cherokee St., Marietta.
Commissioner Helen Goreham, who represents northwest Cobb, thinks without the extra precautions in place, some may see the county has an easy place to unload stolen items.
Commission Chairman Tim Lee thinks the board will pass the ordinance in some form. It first appeared before the commission about a year ago, he said, but was sent back to county staffers for more work.
He rebuts accusations of an invasion of privacy but says he understands why some store owners feel that way.
“Unfortunately, pawn shops are a common method for people who want to get rid of stolen stuff,” Lee said.