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Chicago Police Department auctions go online

Chicago police cease live auctions of recovered stolen merchandise.

Illustration: Kyle Stecker

The final live auction of the Chicago Police Department’s recovered stolen merchandise began on the morning of February 18 at South Lawndale’s West Side Technical Institute. During the viewing beforehand, there was the usual mix of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and competition in the air. Uniformed cops milled about, and the mostly working-class attendees—many unaware it was the last event of its kind after a run that started in the late ’50s—toured the items displayed on tables behind a blue “Police Line Do Not Cross” sawhorse. They closely eyed the jewelry collections packaged in vacuum-sealed plastic, kicked the tires of dozens of bikes lined up along the walls and jotted down the lot numbers of sought-after pieces such as a never-opened Xbox and a Fender Jazz Bass. The eclectic wares rivaled the most super of Super Wal-Marts: a GPS, a smoothie machine, an audio mixer, a potato peeler, a subwoofer, a point-and-shoot camera, a Shiatsu massaging cushion and a metal-cutting saw. What the stock lacked in quality, it made up for in sheer variety.

It wasn’t long before motormouthed auctioneer Jeff Brown, a slim, tidy bald man in his sixties, stepped up to the podium. “Behind me are items the police picked up in the course of their everyday business,” he announced. “If they can’t find the owner or the owner never comes to claim the items, they end up here.” Then came the bad news: “This is it, folks, the last auction!” The audience’s disappointment was audible.

The CPD has ceased in-person public sales and is now listing items on the eBay-style online auction site PropertyRoom.com.

“I’m not really thrilled. A lot of my customers aren’t, either,” Brown later told me. “People like to touch. They like to see what they’re buying.”

Joe Dertien, 36, had come with a pocketful of cash for a bike to ride around his Ukrainian Village ’hood. “What a shame,” the Saint Xavier University professor said upon hearing he was attending the auction’s closing party. “It’s a great way to spend a Saturday.”

“It’s kind of sad because we have known the auctioneer for some time,” said officer John Corso, standing near a table of
deep fryers.

For more than 50 years, Ace Auctioneers has held the city contract for the public sales, typically held monthly or bimonthly on Saturday mornings at one of the City Colleges. While attending college in the late ’60s, Brown started working part time as a cashier for Ace. He took over the business in the ’80s and has been the police auctioneer since. He’s extremely thorough, describing each object before starting the bidding. “I don’t like my customers to feel razzle-dazzled,” he says. “If there’s something wrong with it, I say: ‘There’s a dent here.’ ”

That attention to detail, Brown says, gets lost with digital auctions. “A lot of places that are doing online auctions—[the photos] don’t show every scratch, and people are buying things that they’re not happy with.”

CPD spokeswoman Melissa Stratton says taking the auctions digital makes sense in this age of austerity. While the events padded police coffers with $193,461 last year, they tied up several officers who spent hours transporting things to and from the Evidence and Recovered Property Section in Homan Square. Those cops are now free for street duty. “Additionally,” Stratton says, “we are hoping the online auctions will reach a larger audience.”

Though Brown understands the logic of the CPD’s decision, he’s still a bit glum. “I don’t have to like it, but I have to accept it,” he says. “You have to know when to let things go. That’s the nature of an auction.”

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