PORTLAND — Beneath the Portland Police Department, in a locked cage in the back of a locked evidence room, a set of rare swords sit in their sheaths and scabbards.
They’re surrounded by bicycles, televisions, iPods, jewelry, clothes, the occasional Greek-goddess lawn statue and other found or confiscated property.
For at least six months, police will try to find and contact the owners of such items, and advertise them in the newspaper. If no one claims them, they may be auctioned on PropertyRoom.com.
Nine law enforcement agencies in Maine, including the Portland Police Department, use PropertyRoom.com, an eBay-like auction website for police-department goodies.
Property Room contracts with more than 2,500 police departments nationwide, and has more than 1.5 million registered bidders. That allows small and mid-size departments like Portland, South Portland and Westbrook to reach a larger number of potential buyers, without committing manpower and money to run their own auctions.
“We like to say we haul away headaches and send back money,” said PJ Bellomo, Property Room’s chief executive officer.
Property Room may haul away headaches, but in Portland’s case, it hasn’t sent back large amounts of money. Since 2006, when the police department first contracted with Property Room, it has sent about $10,700 to the department – the proceeds from hundreds of items being handed over, said Betsy Chapman, the department’s property and evidence coordinator. Nonetheless, Bellomo and police officials say that’s more money than the department would have otherwise made.
Running auctions – which involve advertising, possibly hiring an auctioneer, committing manpower and possibly paying overtime – is at best revenue-neutral for police departments, Chapman said.
“Logistically, it makes a lot of sense” to go online, said Michael Sauschuck, Portland’s police chief. “(Property Room) comes to the department to pick up the items and then does all the legwork.”
Said Bellomo: “Strictly in terms of economics, it’s a winner. But also, strategically, no department right now feels like they have too many officers. So is an auction really what you want to put your police resources toward?”
The specifics of the contract between Portland and Property Room weren’t immediately available. Nicole Clegg, the city’s spokeswoman, said the attorney who has access to that contract wasn’t in the office Friday. No one else knew the specifics, city officials said.
Property Room wouldn’t disclose contract specifics either, but Bellomo said the company uses a sliding-scale calculation. For example, if an item sells for $10, the police department doesn’t get a large percentage. But if it sells for more than $1,000, the police department gets a much larger percentage.
In Maine, Brunswick, Cape Elizabeth, Westbrook, Portland, South Portland, Biddeford, Auburn, Cumberland County and Kittery use PropertyRoom.com, the company said.
Nationally, some of the company’s bigger clients are the New York, Los Angeles and Chicago police departments.
The items that turn up on the website are occasionally amusing or bizarre. In addition to hundreds of watches, computers and jewelry, Property Room once acquired a stolen colonoscopy machine, which sold at auction.
“It’s amazing what people will steal,” Bellomo said. “It’s equally amazing what people will buy.”
In another instance, Property Room ended up with a stolen coffin. A theater troupe won it at auction, and used it as a prop.
Portland hasn’t had too many bizarre or expensive items that have sold on the website, Chapman said. The department rarely seizes a car that someone doesn’t claim, and hasn’t confiscated too many jewels or rare coins.
Chapman said at one time Portland police had a nearly 3-foot-tall, double-headed medieval ax, but she couldn’t remember if it was sold at auction.
On Friday, a check of PropertyRoom.com showed vibrant activity. Most of the auctions start at $1. A 2008 Ford Crown Victoria was selling for $1,150, with three days left in the auction. Property Room’s appraisers set the value at $9,500.
There was also competition for an autographed Chuck Norris photo, numerous Rolexes, a real mink coat and bicycles, courtesy of the Portland Police Department.
“It’s a good service,” Sauschuck said. “It saves us a lot of hassle.”