We’ve talked about the use of auction to reduce inventory in the evidence room. This is also used by fleet managers, quartermasters, and even the firearms specialist in many agencies throughout the country. While each person bringing items into an auction process may possess specialized knowledge of the items, it’s not efficient to have each entity host their own auction, nor is it feasible to have each person available at auction. A more efficient method is to have each entity produce their items for auction, to a designated officer, or group of officers that manage the auction, ensuring that the proceeds are directed to the responsible unit.
Agency auctions have been carried out in many ways. However, there is a recent trend to privatize this function. What this means is that agencies put together all the items they want to auction, and a private company handles auctioning the items, who takes a percentage of each item sold. Some agencies may feel that removing themselves from managing an auction as beneficial, and that the cost represents a savings in terms of labor and effort being directed towards a non-law enforcement objective. However, there is good reason to maintain this function within a department, and there are ways of minimizing the footprint an auction can present. Let’s discuss some methods and strategies concerning auction.
Scheduling of an auction can be burdensome. For any agency, it’s a primary responsibility, and the total inventory that is eligible can ebb and flow, depending on many circumstances, that can become difficult to ensure enough items of interest are available for auction. The use of auction to get rid of inventory, no matter where it originates from, can be a way of recapturing funding that is routinely lost through agency efforts, but it goes without saying that this source of funding will never create a “break-even.” It does offer some relief to already strained budgets, and be useful in addressing long range goals of the agency, as well as covering some emergency needs.
For an agency-led auction, the easier format to follow is one large annual auction. This will mean you are storing inventory eligible for auction for longer, so you will need to designate a staging area for the items. This allows your evidence room, your found property, your quartermaster, your gunsmith/firearms section, and your fleet manager to discard property that has gone through your vetting process for auction items, and reclaim the space for their various needs. By using an annual auction format, having these other departments focus on presenting items on a quarterly basis. This helps whoever oversees the auction with getting items recorded for auction, make decisions on what will be “marque” items for auction, and conduct research on pricing, so that opening bids can elicit competitive pricing.
Once you have your schedule of items set, you can decide, based on availability, when would be the best time to hold the auction for the public.
Depending on how many items are being managed for the auction, that number will dictate how many personnel you’ll need on hand. And considering personnel for the job, if you’re following the roles and responsibilities we’ve previously outlined, this is a perfect time to utilize the personnel you have dedicated to your agency Lost and Found function, because they tend to be dealing with items of common, and high dollar value. Sure, they may not be experts in valuation and auction management, but they do have some background, and more availability than your evidence personnel do. It also adds to their overall repertoire. And over time, their ability to increase efficiency with the maintenance of items and successful auctions will pay off in other ways within your agency later.
Once you know how many people you’ll need to pull off the big day, you can set to work on setting the date.
Types of Auctions
There are a few types of auction, but fair warning, we prefer one type. Here’s an explanation of the standard types of auctions:
English – This type of auction is dramatized/romanticized the most in movies and television. It’s an open bid process, where by the auctioneer states a floor price for an item, to elicit bidding from participants. If any participants bid, everyone else hears them, and can decide if they want to outbid that person. Once participants stop bidding, the auctioneer states the item is sold to the highest bidder, normally identifying them by an assigned number on a placard, given to them when they register as an auction participant. We don’t like this style of auction, but there’s no reason not to do it. For one, it’s labor intensive. You must get those placards ready, you must register all people, and that means someone manning a computer, typing driver’s license information and other contact information into a database, assigning a number. Then you need someone to track each of these people down in a crowd to politely demand payment. This type of auction requires a bit more hands on than we should commit ourselves to.
Dutch – This is where a group of like items go into bid, at a very high asking price by the auctioneer, and participants can bid on part of, or all of the lot. The auction continues until the entire lot is auctioned off. This one is too complex for our money, it requires a constant shifting of items, and that in it of itself makes the process to labor intense.
Blind – This auction places items throughout a specified area for viewing, and each participant places a sealed bid for any items of interest. At the end of the auction period, all bids are opened and reviewed by your personnel, with the highest bidder on each item winning it.
Vickery – This is the same as the blind auction, except that the highest bidding participant gets to pay the next lowest price. Think of it as an incentive to bid high, without really meaning to.
There are many other types of auctions, but these are the main four. We like the blind method because it makes your efforts minimal. For one, you only need to record the participants with winning bids, which means you can lower how many entries you’ll be placing into your database. Second, it makes the process of bidding very easy to understand, and hard to confuse. And third, it requires a minimum amount of staffing. For our money, blind is the way to go.
Some agencies will take the money received for this and put all of it into various budgets for the following year, for all the departments that contributed items. Others will maintain it in their agency’s general budget. And still some will place portions into their budget, and donate remainders to their local school district, as a way of sharing the wealth. Some auctions will bring heavy amounts of cash, others won’t be so productive. But there is no reason for an agency not to be able to maintain and operate their own auction, using minimal resources, and still receiving healthy benefit from the process. Auctions are a great way to interact with some members of your traveling public in an overall positive environment, and that too can lend some benefit to your agency in the long term. Discovering a system that works for you is where this process starts. Everything after that is improvement.
Be safe out there!