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Law Enforcement

Theft of historical records is a crime. When a theft from your collection is observed and reported, your repository becomes a potential crime scene. Law enforcement agencies are responsible for solving crimes; repositories are not. Most of the strategies suggested here are applicable regardless of your municipality, state, or even country.

Working with Law Enforcement

When to Contact

Your organization should avoid internal management of situations that require the intervention of law enforcement. However, summoning assistance frequently without merit will lead to a negative relationship.

Contact law enforcement immediately when:

  • A crime is in progress. (See Theft-in-Progress.)
  • Evidence of a theft, such as surveillance TV footage or mutilated/concealed items, has been noticed.
  • A dangerous confrontation occurs, or you have reason to believe a subject is a danger to self or others.
  • A subject flees.
  • Your supervisor or security staff is unavailable.
  • A need to detain or interrogate a subject arises.

If there is any uncertainty about contacting law enforcement, it is always better to call. Consider contacting your local law enforcement agency’s non-emergency line for advice when the situation is unclear. You may encounter situations that your organization chooses to manage through internal procedures, such as Incident Reports and disciplinary actions. These decisions should be made by your organization’s leadership.  Some organizations may require that an internal investigation precede any civil or criminal action.
Incident Report Tips

Respecting Chain of Command

There may be a number of law enforcement agencies that have jurisdiction over your organization. In most cases, the best approach is to begin at the local level and work out. Following this chain of command will help eliminate unnecessary communications and the risk of inadvertently bypassing the appropriate agency.

Some organizations have security officers available through a contract security service or an internal law enforcement agency, such as campus police. Make sure that these officers understand your policies, are trained for response to a theft call from your repository, and have written outlines of these expectations in their post orders. Consider inviting your security officers and local law enforcement to tour your facility before an incident occurs.

How You Can Help Law Enforcement

Archives, museum, and library professionals have an important role to play in the prosecution of historical records thefts. Prosecutors need our assistance in defining the scope and scale of the crime, especially if it has been perpetrated over time.

Archivists can help by reviewing documentation and collections to identify what is missing, and whether there is a predictable pattern to what the perpetrator stole. They can also re-trace the perpetrator’s “steps” to discover which collections were exposed to risk. This analysis requires knowledge of the records inherent value and of archives operations, which archivists are uniquely qualified to contribute. An independent appraiser can help to assign a monetary value to what was stolen. Together, these professionals can calculate a restitution penalty. Ultimately, the archivist can provide the prosecutor with a list of items that are missing and that can be linked, with evidence, to the alleged perpetrator.

Laws Related to Historic Records Theft

Consult with your attorney for help understanding and applying Federal and New York State Laws that relate to the theft, destruction, sale, and recovery of historical records and cultural materials.