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Some items in overflowing evidence rooms go back as far as 15 years
SOUTHBRIDGE, Mass. — A small hot tub and a set of brass knuckle with three knives sticking out of it are among unusual items that have accumulated in the Southbridge Police Department.
They are examples of a common housekeeping issue for police departments - the need for more room for evidence and recovered items.
Authorities in Westboro are going through inventory, police Lt. Robert T. Fryer said. They have guns and old televisions, computers and different things that are of no particular interest, he said.
"We're going through our old cases - things that are 10, 12, 15 years old - and making sure that the cases are not active and disposing of what we can to make more room," Lt. Fryer said.
Westboro has a small room for valuables such as guns and drugs. Other items are kept in cold storage in a 12- by 25-foot space off the garage.
Bicycles and other items are in yet another area - a storage container at the Westboro Department of Public Works. Many bikes were auctioned, the lieutenant said.
Sutton Police Chief Dennis J. Towle said his staff met last week about the same problem.
Chief Towle said his predecessor years ago bought a storage container for items. That's now full.
Sutton police have also partitioned part of their garage for evidence.
"We have an extensive amount of jewelry from a specific case that we're waiting to get a disposition on," Chief Towle said. "At that point we'll try to find who the owners are. It's unlikely we ever will find them."
The chief classified some of the jewelry as "real, real unique stuff." A pocket watch has an estimated value of $3,000 to $5,000.
"Somebody has to be missing it, whether or not (the owner is) still with us," Chief Towle said.
The Auburn Police Department's 30-square-foot evidence room probably has about 500 items and is nearly out of space, Chief Andrew J. Sluckis said. The items are "run of the mill" guns and drug evidence, such as things used to cultivate marijuana.
"A lot of it has to do with either open cases that we're waiting to come up for trial, or cases where we have to hold on to the evidence because the person is in default and has never appeared in court," he said.
In Southbridge, unidentifiable headstones are among other unusual items, Chief Daniel R. Charette said.
Southbridge police have a plastic tub containing about 30 or 40 swords. "We must have 300 or 400 firearms," he said.
The department has checked with the town's lawyer to see what it can do with this property, the chief said.
"It would seem pretty simple on the surface," Chief Charette said. "You have the recovered property from a breaking and entering. You know whose it is, you give it back to them."
But the problem is that sometimes the court case has been disposed of and the insurance company has paid for the loss. The insurer usually doesn't want the item back so it sits with police, Chief Charette said.
An auction is a possibility, but when items are declared surplus the town gets to keep the portion of money from the auction.
"My hope with that is the money stays within the police department," he said with a laugh.
Southbridge police Sgt. Jose A. Dingui recently met with Northboro-based Village Vault, a firearms storage facility that in some cases will give the police 60 percent of the proceeds from a gun sale.
For the most part Village Vault stores guns that were taken by police in restraining-orders cases, license revocations or were abandoned or donated in instances when a gun-owner died and the family didn't want the weapon.
About five years ago, an Internet company called propertyroom.com emerged, and it has been helpful for departments, said retired Shrewsbury Police Chief A. Wayne Sampson, who is the executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association.
The company logs the items, takes pictures and posts them on the Internet.
Chief Sampson said this is a better program because the items are on the Internet permanently, and as materials are sold the company sends a check to a community.
State law allows "property which has been stolen, lost, abandoned or taken from a person under arrest" to be disposed of.
Just to be thorough, the chief's association filed legislation to allow auctioning property on the Internet, Chief Sampson said. The bill passed in April.
In the old days, an officer would spend weeks or months going through property, trying to track down owners through letters, Chief Sampson said.
The officer would have to make sure the case was cleared before the department hired an auctioneer, which requires a newspaper advertisement.
"We would have to bring in extra help on the day of the auction to be there and process it," Chief Sampson said.
In most cases, after paying for the public auction, the department probably would lose money to get rid of the property, he said.
However, some items still find their way home the old-fashioned way.
Seven days ago in West Brookfield, a West Springfield woman lost a diamond ring. She told a reporter it was a family heirloom that fell out of her purse as she got out of her car for a Valentine's Day dinner with her husband at Salem Cross Inn.
Jean Smith of Wilbraham found it and turned it over to staff at the inn, who in turn gave the ring to police.
By Wednesday it was in the rightful owner's hands.
Sgt. Charles H. Laperle, who handled the case, said the owner was lucky to have honest people turn in the ring.
West Brookfield police certainly don't need any more unclaimed items, which are kept in various locations in the department.
The ring's owner did not want her name mentioned, but she said she was "thrilled and relieved" and "forever grateful" to Ms. Smith.
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