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Do Police Ever Do Anything about Theft?

June 3rd, 2011

Back in 2003, in one of my very early blog posts, I related the story of a man who got scammed on eBay. He sold his PowerBook for $3000 to someone who turned out to be a serial con artist. As is sometimes the case with Mac users, he was not willing to let it go, and became relentless in hunting down the guy who stole his goods and left him in the lurch. He reported it to the police, who did nothing.

Eventually, he learned pretty much everything about the criminal: his name, address, telephone number, and evidence of other crimes. All the police had to do, literally, was to go to the address and arrest the guy. They brushed him off. He tried the police where he lived, where the criminal lived, the FBI, even the Secret Service on the off chance that counterfeiting involved could be in their jurisdiction. Nothing. A citizen had all the goods on a criminal guilty of larceny and fraud, served him up on a platter, and several different enforcement offices gave him the brush-off.

Fortunately, this guy caught a break–the criminal used a new address at one point which was in the jurisdiction of a smaller police precinct, which did what any police authority should have done–drove over and arrested the guy, who was in possession of more than $10,000 in counterfeit checks at the time. A few hours’ work, and a serial criminal was behind bars. It doesn’t often get easier than that.

I was reminded by this when I saw of similar case in the news today. Over the years, there have been many such stories–people with Apple gear go to lengths to get it back, often with the help of good security software and/or the Mac community–but this one caught my eye because it echoed the 2003 case regarding police attitudes.

A guy in Oakland, CA, Joshua Kaufman, had his Macbook stolen in a home robbery in March. He reported this to the police, who quickly did nothing. Fortunately, this guy had been prepared: he had purchased a $15 app called “Hidden,” which lurks in the background on your computer, and, if stolen, can snap camera images and screen shots, and give network information leading to the location of the person in possession of the computer.

Sure enough, Kaufman started getting this data. With the information provided by the app, he was able to inform the police of all they needed to know: the address of the person with the stolen device and photographs of him using it. Certainly enough for a search warrant, at least.

The police did nothing. Citing a “lack of resources,” they could not be bothered to send a single car to the address and pick up the person.

So Kaufman went a different way: he started a Tumblr page on May 27, telling the story and posting images of the person using the computer and sleeping in front of it, and screenshots of activities suggesting guilt, like deleting the previous user’s account. A few days later, on May 31, a tweet he posted caught fire, and the media started paying attention. (It might have helped that one of the images showed the guy shirtless in bed using the computer, for what the rightful owner did not want to know.)

Where were the police? Ready to spring to action! Uh, only after Good Morning America called them and asked them why they were sitting on their asses when low-hanging fruit was just sitting there.

When they got that call, they finally did what they should have done weeks earlier, and arrested the guy.

How did the police explain their inaction? The case was “incorrectly closed.” Right. The officer went on to say, “It shows that when the system works, it works great. The diligence of Mr. Kaufman is exactly what we need – people who are engaged and are making an effort to reduce crime.”

No, what we need are police who will act on reports. Kaufman was engaged, the police were not.

Now, I understand that police are bogged down. They have more important things to do than to track down lost wallets or follow up on petty theft reports. But I do not think that it is unreasonable to expect at least some effort, even the smallest amount, in response to theft crimes. Hell, if I were a criminal, I would probably feel like I could get away with anything, so long as I didn’t steal from someone too wealthy or influential.

Seriously–when police are given the name and address of someone and proof of the crime committed, even photos of them in the act, but cannot be bothered to do the least that is possible for them–drive over and arrest the person who has been fully identified–then what’s the point of even making theft a punishable offense?

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  1. June 4th, 2011 at 21:50 | #1

    Tonight I saw an old episode of the TV show Seinfeld wherein he gives a monologue about being the victim of theft about 18 times, how the first couple of times it’s upsetting and your friends tell you to call the police and you’ve seen police dramas on TV, the manhunts and stakeouts — you assume you’ll see some action. The police come and fill out a form and give you a copy, but unless they’re also going to give a copy to the criminal, it’s not like they’re ever going to crack the case: “It’s not like Batman, where there’s three crooks in the city and everybody pretty much knows who they are.”

  2. Tim Kane
    June 5th, 2011 at 03:08 | #2

    Policeman: We’ll let you know if we find something, Mr. Seinfeld

    Jerry: Do you ever find something?

    Policeman: No.

    Few things in life are not covered in the long run of Seinfeld. Great Show.

    It is remembered as an emblem of those times, which were great indeed.

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