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An online listing of bikes, iPads, computers and other items sold to Minnesota and Wisconsin pawnshops has proved to be a treasure trove of tips for police trying to catch thieves and recover stolen property.

Last year, 260 police agencies using the Automated Property System (APS) recovered an estimated $1.2 million worth of goods, according to John Elder, head of the APS unit at the Minneapolis Police Department, which developed and runs the 16-year-old system.

APS "has become a very important tool for solving all kinds of crime," Elder said. For example, he said, APS data led to the arrest of a suspect who shot a Brooklyn Park resident in a 2004 home invasion. Elder said items stolen from the home were pawned in St. Paul by a woman who admitted she got the items from her boyfriend, whom police arrested, he said.

In the mid-1990s, the pawn industry opposed state legislation to regulate pawnshops, but once it passed, Pawn America, the area's biggest pawn broker, worked with Minneapolis to develop an effective pawn tracking system, Elder said.

"We are strong supporters of electronic reporting," said Chuck Armstrong, legislative director for Pawn America.

Pawn America has stores in the four cities with the state's largest numbers of pawn transactions — St. Paul, Bloomington, Burnsville and Fridley. St. Paul had 65,962 transactions last year in its seven pawnshops. Minneapolis came in fifth, with almost 47,000 transactions in five shops.

APS is "one of the most valuable tools we have in the fight against theft and related crime," said Fridley Police Chief Don Abbott. His city had 47,664 pawn transactions last year, when APS reporting helped it recover $38,770 in stolen property.

Integrating efforts

The Automated Property System tracks serial numbers from property transactions at three kinds of stores: pawnshops, precious-metals dealers and secondhand stores. The system's 93 pawn stores in dozens of cities upload transaction information — which usually includes a person's photo and driver's license data — to APS computers each night. APS checks serial numbers of pawned items against stolen property listed at the National Crime Information Center and sends a list of hits each day to police in the city where the possible theft happened, Elder said.

Elder said cities share APS property and suspect data to jointly solve cases. He cited a 2011 case of interagency cooperation:

Burglars hit three homes one night in Scott County, then drove north, stopping to pawn goods at three shops near Interstate 35W on the way to Duluth, where they planned to buy drugs smuggled from Canada. A Scott County officer immediately sent a burglary suspect query to APS, which turned up hits that led to a suspect's Duluth address and the arrest of the three suspects by Duluth police.

Levels of service

The 65 cities with pawn and other stores pay Minneapolis 90 cents per pawn transaction to join the system. The fees cover APS staff and program expenses, so taxpayers pay nothing, Elder said.

Another 195 agencies pay less for "query only" service. That allows them to send queries to APS to search the system for hits on stolen property or suspect ID data.

Such searches are fruitful because thieves often pawn items in cities away from where the property was stolen. For example, Minneapolis estimates that 40 percent of the stolen property detectives recover was pawned elsewhere.

Fridley has used APS since 2006, but has had a pawn detective since the mid-1990s, said Capt. Bob Rewitzer. The city charges its two pawn stores $3 per transaction, which covers the detective's salary and the $28,624 APS fee last year. Store monitoring by the detective "keeps their people on the up and up," Rewitzer said. "We make sure it is not an easy way of fencing stuff."

Pawn detective Jason Cardinal said APS tips helped him solve six burglaries in the past 18 months. He said property stolen in Minneapolis is often pawned in Fridley, apparently because thieves think it is less risky. However, all metro area shops upload customer identification data and pawned property numbers nightly into the APS system.

Fridley sees benefits

Fridley has seen the value of recovered stolen property rise every year since 2006, from about $2,500 that year to nearly $14,500 in 2007 and $38,770 last year. Cardinal said Fridley's two shops — Pawn America and Max It Pawn — are very cooperative, sometimes calling police about suspicious items brought into their stores.

Armstrong, of Pawn America, said the chain is the worst place to bring stolen goods because the stores shoot videos of the people pawning items, record driver's license information and send data about pawned goods to APS.

Pawn stores often lose whatever they paid for stolen property confiscated by police. "We don't want stolen items in our stores," Armstrong said. "It is bad for business."

Jim Adams • 612-673-7658