A plan pushed by the Columbus Police Department for a city ordinance to help track stolen merchandise met with such fierce opposition from pawn shops and secondhand stores that the City Council rejected it by a 6-0 vote Tuesday night.
The ordinance would have required many store owners to report electronically to city police on a daily basis what they had bought for eventual resale in their stores — from jewelry to televisions.
Some pawn shop and secondhand store owners bristled at the notion that the ordinance would have made them turn over data about what they were buying (and from whom) to a private contractor.
The reporting system would have used the company LeadsOnline, which would collect the data via the Internet and then resell access to the information to law enforcement agencies around the nation, including police in Columbus.
Other shop owners and Columbus small-business owners argued that the new rules represented an invasion of privacy and overreach by local government and created an unnecessary burden for small stores.
Fred Neff, president of Apex Tool Co. in Columbus, said his company’s attorney had suggested moving outside the city limits to avoid the possibility that it would have been swept into coverage under the new ordinance. Apex often trades in secondhand tools when workers buy new and turn in older tools that might still have value.
The police department had agreed to several changes in the ordinance to soften its impact and carve out exceptions.
For instance, the ordinance presented to council members Tuesday night exempted garage sales, vendors in town for 24 hours or less, charities, political organizations, antique stores, people or corporations doing $5,000 or less in business every year and auction houses.
It also said no one had to report acquiring clothes, cars, books, boats and watercraft, farm equipment, furniture, CDs or vinyl records.
But small-business owners questioned how the city would determine whether a company had more than $5,000 in annual sales and whether police could get a search warrant to look at a store’s books in extreme cases.
City Council member Frank Miller said he opposed the ordinance because it would infringe on privacy and create “too much government. I can’t agree to make businesses sign away their rights.”
Columbus Police Chief Jason Maddix said his department actually has subscribed to the LeadsOnline database for several years at a cost of roughly $4,300 per year. But local pawn shop owners haven’t been required to dump data into the electronic system. Cooperation has been voluntary, and almost no store owners bother to use the electronic tool, he said.
Tuesday’s City Council vote means that won’t change now.
City police said the database would have been easy to use for most pawn shops and other stores by linking their internal point of sales software to LeadsOnline via an Internet connection.
Maddix said several other Indiana cities — Bloomington, Terre Haute and Fort Wayne among them — have implemented similar ordinances in the recent past and are optimistic about the impact it could make in fighting crime.
But city police were unable to provide statistics on the number of crimes solved or leads developed in cities where such ordinances are in effect.
“We’re kind of at our wit’s end about what else to do to combat property crimes,” Maddix told the city council. “We could hire more police officers, but that comes at a high price.”
The database would let police match pawn shop merchandise tracked by the LeadsOnline system with descriptions or serial numbers of goods reported stolen in Columbus, and those leads could be pursued, the police chief said.
“This system puts two and two together instantly and gives the human police officer leads,” the police chief said.
He argued that the new system was needed because Columbus has a high rate of property crimes per capita that’s far above the national average.
“Property crimes are a little like snowstorms,” Maddix said. “They just keep rolling in.”
Statistics kept by the police department show there are six victims of property crimes every day in Columbus, the police chief said.
“This ordinance would support one of the core values of the city — cost efficiency,” the chief added.
“The database costs us about $4,300 per year, while adding one new police officer would carry a cost of $75,000 a year.”