Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) officers arrived on the scene moments after a burglar had broken into Janet Wittes’ downtown office last December. Before the thief made off with a laptop computer, Wittes’ camera, and $120, the officers collared him. Wittes, president of the looted firm, Statistics Collaborative, was delighted, and promptly fired off letters of commendation for the officers. The next day, Wittes arrived at the 3rd District station to reclaim her property. That’s where her encounter with MPD efficiency ended.

On her initial attempt at property retrieval, Wittes discovered that the requisite paperwork had not been filed, and she left the station empty-handed. Wittes and research assistant Rob Hydon then tried another tack, pursuing Sgt. Kathryn Hammond, the night-shift officer who had left her card after the arrest.

Hydon despaired of reaching the nocturnal Hammond after calling several times and ending up in her voice mail, which was usually full, he says. So he called the station in the daytime and ended up talking with John Mathis, a detective with no involvement in the burglary case. Mathis told Hydon he would try to prod Hammond into releasing the stolen property. However, Mathis went on to explain that stolen property in police custody must actually be released by the U.S. Attorney’s office, which determines whether it’s needed as evidence. A man named Phillip Lomax pleaded guilty to the offense in February, so the evidence question was moot.

After four months of deadlock, Wittes decided it was time to call in the brass. On April 2, she dispatched a letter to MPD Chief Larry Soulsby and other higher-ups demanding action. The epistle worked like a charm, prompting a call from a cop at the 2nd District station.

Hydon pounced on the opening, but the officer pointed out that the laptop was registered under Lomax’s name (the guy who stole it) and recommended that he call MPD’s main property division, which in turn advised him to call the police district where the arrest was made. Back to Hammond, the night owl.

“I left her a message saying, ‘Look, what’s going on?’” Hydon says. He settled in to wait for a reply.

(My attempts to reach Hammond fared no better, but what did I expect? It took Hydon six months. I left two messages, which both went unreturned.)

Terry Keeney, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office, says he’s “real reluctant to point fingers” in accounting for the delay. He cannot explain why his office signed the property-release form months after Lomax pleaded guilty. Still, Keeney allows that he’s “heard of a number of situations where victims are very frustrated with the time it takes to get their things back.”

“It’s very unfortunate,” Keeney says, his voice dropping to a whisper. “We try to minimize the whole victimization experience.”

It’s not working. When Hydon finally reached Hammond, she sent him the coveted property-release form, dated May 6. The property was still registered in Lomax’s name, so Hydon had to go back to the station to redo the paperwork to reflect the true ownership of the property. Having obtained the appropriate form, which put him tantalizingly close to retrieving the company’s long-lost goods, Hydon placed his order, sat down, and snapped open a newspaper.

A half-hour later, the clerk apologized for the delay and explained that she was having trouble tracking down the laptop. Hydon then went to the building’s pay phone to call the office. As he finished dialing, a fire alarm above his head began to blare, and a nearby spigot doused him with cold water.

“I really thought it was a practical joke,” he says. “It was almost as if when the phone started ringing it triggered the alarm. It was almost like you were at a fun house.”

Finally, a property-division clerk appeared with a box containing the laptop, the camera, a moth-eaten jacket, and a knit cap. Hydon didn’t quibble. Statistics Collaborative had long since given up on recovering its stolen cash, and the clothes—which presumably belonged to Lomax—were easy enough to ditch. Hydon grabbed the box and took off. Outside the station, he lifted Wittes’ camera to take a picture to memorialize the experience, but the battery was dead. CP

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