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December 7, 2006

Lost it? Pitt police may have found it

The University’s Pittsburgh campus is a big place with lots of people who carry with them lots of stuff. Occasionally, some of that stuff gets lost. Some gets found. When that happens, some gets into the hands of Pitt’s police department.

“Tell them to come get their stuff,” said Pitt police sergeant Joe Patterson with a hint of exasperation as he shuffled through several boxes full of items that have trickled in to the police department in recent months.

It’s Patterson’s job to deal with possessions that become separated from their owners — an occurrence that repeats itself hundreds of times each year across the Pitt campus.

His latest collection of small found items — labeled, bagged and piled into milk crates for storage — includes wallets, Pitt IDs, bank cards, notebooks and other assorted campus detritus. Jackets, bookbags, bicycles, umbrellas, purses and a host of other larger items also find their way into police custody.

Hillman Library, the Nationality Room gift shop, Panther Central and various computer labs all see their share of items that later are turned over to police if owners can’t be located. Some are brought in by passersby but most arrive by way of custodians and professors who pass them along from the rooms where the items were left behind, Commander Rick Parfitt said. For that reason, he advises first tracking a lost item from where it might have been left, then checking with the police more than once. Items may be left for several days in the building where they were lost before police are alerted, or it may take several days before a finder is able to bring an item to the police department, Parfitt said.

Most of what Patterson logs into his record book are those easily lost possessions, but over the years there have been some odd items: lunchboxes — with lunches inside — skis and even snare drums.

“Anything I can identify, I try to get hold of the person,” Patterson said.

Who loses the stuff? Mostly, it’s students, Patterson said — with a few absentminded professors and staff to round out the collection. A pattern to lost items definitely has emerged. The first few weeks after students arrive is a big time for lost IDs, Patterson said. Late in the semester it’s books that go missing, although those often are stolen for their resale value, rather than merely lost, he said.

This year, Patterson’s doing pretty well in terms of getting the lost items out of storage at the police department’s headquarters in Posvar Hall. Thumbing through the ledger book where each found item is recorded, he counted 25 pages of entries for 2006. Multiplied times about 35 entries per page and that’s about 875 instances of forgetfulness so far this year alone. Many of those items are highlighted in yellow, which means they’ve either been claimed or disposed of. More than half, happily, have been reunited with their owner.

Those that haven’t been claimed, after a period of time and following a required last-call advertisement in the student newspaper, are passed along to charities. Eyeglasses, dozens of pairs per year, go to the Lions Club. Bicycles go to various groups. “We just gave 25 away to a charity,” Patterson said, noting they’d been stored for a year. (The department typically disposes of unclaimed items every six months, although sometimes Patterson doesn’t keep up with that schedule, opting to err on the side of finding a long-lost owner.)

Unclaimed key rings are a particular puzzlement. “I can’t believe more people who’ve lost their keys don’t call or come down,” Patterson said.

Occasionally, illegal drugs turn up among the found items, Parfitt said. Those who are foolish enough to come to the police department searching for them among the lost items might find themselves arrested, he said, noting that it’s happened on more than one occasion.

While forgetfulness appears to be timeless, the things forgotten are becoming higher tech. Cell phones used to be the No. 1 lost item, but the top find these days, said Patterson, who’s been handling lost and found at the police department for the past decade, is USB flash drives.

The small size that makes them convenient also makes them easy to leave behind. They arrive at the police department regularly from computer labs across campus, Patterson said, peering into a 2.5-gallon zip-top plastic bag filled nearly to overflowing with the computer memory storage devices. Patterson said he used to try to identify the owners by the data on the drives, but no longer. “I did until I got a virus on my computer opening things up one time. Now I won’t do it any more,” he said. So it’s up to the person who’s lost the drive to try to narrow it down based on brand or other distinguishing characteristics, such as whether it was attached to a lanyard, or where it was believed to have been lost.

Once, a graduate student lost his entire dissertation thanks to forgetfulness in the computer lab. With no backup for the information, he turned up frantic at the police department, said Parfitt, who never learned whether there was a happy reunion or not.

The USB devices that go unclaimed are among the things the department will not pass along to charity. Because of the potentially sensitive nature of data on the drives, those that can’t be returned to their owners are smashed with a hammer and destroyed, Patterson said.

The police department’s planned move to a new headquarters on Forbes Avenue early next year may lead to some changes in lost and found statistics.

Initially, the flurry of activity in preparation for the move may offer a reprieve for people who’ve lost an item. While December typically is the end-of-semester time Patterson uses to clear out and dispose of lost items that have been in police storage, this year he expects to be too busy to get that done until after the department is settled in its new home.

Parfitt said the new location, while more visible than the department’s current home in the parking garage beneath Posvar Hall, is less centrally located. Whether that will cause an increase or decrease in turning in or claiming lost and found items remains to be seen.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 39 Issue 8

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