(Photo by Juliana Reyes)
Officer Melissa Panebianco followed Quider Johnson from pawn shop to pawn shop for three months before he got arrested last March.
Johnson, now 19, had been selling things like TVs, jewelry and other electronics to pawn shops around the city. The exact same ones that had been reported missing by Frankford residents whose houses had been broken into.
Each time she identified the stolen items at pawn shops, Panebianco, 30, the 15th Police District’s burglary expert, helped reunite the victims with their belongings. All the while, she kept a close eye on Johnson, waiting for his next sale.
Her secret weapon? A tool called LeadsOnline.
Run by a Dallas, Texas-based company, LeadsOnline is an online database that officers in the Philadelphia Police Department, like Panebianco, use to nab burglars and recover stolen items. They can do that because Philadelphia pawn shops are required by city law to file a report with LeadsOnline every time they purchase an item from an individual. That report includes a photo of the seller and the seller’s ID, the seller’s thumbprint and a photo and description of the item, including a serial number, if possible.
"I want to solve every single burglary, but I can't."
Some 393 Philadelphia police officers are registered on the site, said LeadsOnline spokeswoman Lindsay Williams. That includes every officer in the investigative unit, said police spokeswoman Christine O’Brien. One cop in the Major Crimes Unit, Officer Deborah Jones, is on the pawn detail and responsible for investigating crimes and recovering items using LeadsOnline, said Jones’ supervisor Lt. Jonathan Josey.
The City of Philadelphia has paid $75,000 to LeadsOnline every year starting in December 2011 for access to the database, according to city records. Pricing is based on the size of the department, Williams said, so that police departments of any size can afford it. That subscription fee includes an unlimited number of searches on the tool, as well as an unlimited number of police users. More than 5,200 law enforcement agencies use LeadsOnline, including the police departments of New York, San Francisco and Chicago, according to a LeadsOnline press release.
For Panebianco, LeadsOnline has changed how she can respond to burglaries. In the past, there was no way for her to search pawn shop transactions for stolen items unless she drove around to each pawn shop and asked to see, say, all the TVs the owner had purchased in the last week. With LeadsOnline, she can monitor transactions at every local pawn shop.
With Johnson, the teen who she caught selling stolen items to pawn shops, it started with a serial number. A Frankford resident gave Panebianco the serial numbers for the TVs that were stolen from his house. (At community meetings, she always reminds residents to write down the serial numbers for their electronics.) She tracked one down through LeadsOnline and flagged Johnson’s name so she’d get an alert every time he sold something to a pawn shop. She was able to solve a dozen cases this way, she said.
One time, she responded to a burglary in the neighborhood and by the time she had talked to the victim, written up the report and got back to the district, she had an email alerting her that Johnson had sold those items — the same ones detailed in her report — to a pawn shop.
(Why wasn’t Johnson arrested the first time Panebianco connected him to a stolen item? Because a detective has to draw up an arrest warrant to do so and they often have a lot of work on their plate, she said. Johnson, charged with burglary and theft, among other things, is now awaiting trial.)
Getting the Police Department a computerized pawn shop transaction database has been a long time coming. In a 1998 Philadelphia City Paper article, Capt. John McGinnis, former head of the major crimes unit, said a computerized system would help cops do their jobs better and save the city money by cutting out labor costs. As the City Paper story explained, officers used to collect pawn slips with information about each pawn shop transaction from shops around the city and gave them to the major crimes unit to check against local and national crime databases. In 1998, they collected more than 500,000 pawn slips.
The Police Department didn’t get a computerized system until 2012 — more than a decade after McGinnis told the City Paper how valuable it would be. It’s not clear what took so long. (Though the Police Department does have a track record of dragged-out tech upgrades.) We couldn’t reach McGinnis, who retired last year, for comment.
(In the City Paper article, McGinnis said that in order for the Police Department to get a computerized system, City Council would likely have to pass a bill that required pawn shops to report information about transactions electronically. Council did so in 2010, with a bill sponsored by Councilman Jack Kelly. Though Council worked with the Police Department to craft the bill, Kelly said he didn’t introduce the bill because the PPD asked him to. “I wanted to make it known to people that you can’t pawn anything in Philadelphia,” the former councilman told us over the phone earlier this week.)
In the summer of 2012, Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey sent letters to every pawn shop and precious metal dealer in the city, saying they had to register with LeadsOnline.
Though she sings its praises, LeadsOnline isn’t foolproof, Panebianco said.
Pawn shop owners take blurry photos of sellers. They write vague descriptions of items, making it hard to use the search functionality. There’s also the slippery slope of investigating every item you find on the platform.
You can look into all the transactions that don’t seem right, like a teenager selling a class ring. Sooner or later, you’ll start recovering items and solving burglary cases for districts outside of your own and she would, she said, “if I had the time and the sanity to do it.”
Though nearly 400 Philly cops are registered on the platform, it does seem like the Police Department, which employs 6,600 cops, could do a better job of spreading the word about LeadsOnline.
To his knowledge, Josey, the major crimes supervisor, said the Police Department doesn’t have any programs to spread awareness about the tool.
When Panebianco found out about it last year, she only knew of one other cop using it — the cop that had told her about it.
Since then, she’s been preaching the LeadsOnline gospel.
The cops in her district know that she uses LeadsOnline to investigate, so they take detailed burglary reports and know to turn to her when items get stolen, she said.
It wasn’t exactly in the job description. Panebianco’s captain initially tapped her and another cop as the burglary specialists, asking them to pay special attention to those cases by taking photos of crime scenes and trying to get fingerprints (not every district has a burglary point person, she said). When she found out about LeadsOnline, it morphed into a more investigative job. She regularly makes crime maps, like a crime analyst does, and keeps a big, three-ring binder with copies of all the recent burglary reports. In the early days, she was so hooked on the prospect of solving cases that she’d be at home, checking LeadsOnline.
“I want to solve every single burglary, but I can’t,” she said. It makes her crazy sometimes.
But her investigating days are coming to a close, at least for now. Panebianco, who has a master’s in public safety management from St. Joseph’s University, is getting promoted. She’ll become a sergeant at a new district later this month.
Though she’s kind of relieved to get off the burglary beat, she said she’ll miss the satisfaction of reuniting people with their things. Like the 80-year-old couple whose home got broken into while they were out grocery shopping. Equipped with serial numbers for the stolen items, Panebianco checked LeadsOnline and recovered their possessions in half an hour. When she called the victim to tell her, the woman started crying. “That’s what I’ll miss,” Panebianco said.
What data can and can’t tell us about shooting deaths in Philadelphia
50+ news organizations to Philadelphia public officials: Protect journalists
Philly Tech Justice is fighting for free internet access and against police surveillance
Microsoft, The Meet Group partner on ‘grooming detection technique’ for messaging apps
Sign-up for daily news updates from Technical.ly Philadelphia