Ty Swenson
Seattle Police Detective Tim Fields with the Sex Offender Detail Office is charged with checking on the living status of registered sex offenders in half of Seattle, including West Seattle and South Park. He spoke to the West Seattle Block Watch Captains' Network on June 25.

Balancing safety with rights as sex offenders move in

All it takes is one look at the King County sex offender registry online to realize those with a criminal past live amongst us, sometimes right next door to schools, day cares, churches and playgrounds.

Around 20 concerned West Seattleites attended the WS Block Watch Captains’ Network meeting on June 25 to learn more about sex offenders from the Seattle Police Department’s Sex Offender Detail Office. Most came hoping for answers on how they can identify risks and safeguard their children.

With two child abduction attempts in the White Center area (here and here, recent notice of three high-risk offenders moving into West Seattle, and a potential state government shutdown threatening the jobs of Department of Corrections officers who keep an eye on recently released offenders, the topic is on the forefront of many parents’ minds.

The registry
The sex offender registry and the rights of those on it present a balancing act between a convicted person reentering society once they’ve served their time and probation, and the rights of the public to be aware of their presence in our neighborhoods.

The situation is further complicated by a tiered system of Level 1, 2 and 3 offenders. According to the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, the tiers represent the following:

RISK LEVEL 1
Level 1 sex offenders present the lowest risk for re-offense to the community at large. Generally first time offenders who “normally have not exhibited predatory type characteristics.”

RISK LEVEL 2
Level 2 sex offenders generally present a moderate risk to re-offend within community at large. Generally have a lifestyle that puts them at risk to reoffend (drug and alcohol use along with other criminal activity) and who, in the past, may have used a position of “trust and authority” to access their victim(s), such as a teacher, coach, clergy or babysitter.

RISK LEVEL 3
Level 3 sex offenders pose a high risk to re-offend within the community at large. Generally have “predatory characteristics and may seek out victims unknown to the offender,” used violence in past crimes, and/or have railed to complete treatment programs or register where they live repeatedly.

The system is fluid, so an offender can move up or down the scale depending on their behavior after an initial score is given. That initial score is either given by an exit committee at the prison (made up of therapists and law enforcement), or by the local law enforcement agency if the offender only spent time in jail.

For more details, please visit http://www.k12.wa.us/Safetycenter/Offenders/pubdocs/FAQonClassification.pdf

How the system works in Seattle
SPD Detectives Timothy Fields (he covers West Seattle) and Anthony Stevenson led the block watch captains’ discussion. They are the only two detectives in the Sex Offender Detail Office (down from four after budget cuts), whose primary responsibility is checking the address of registered offenders throughout the city to ensure they haven’t moved away without notifying police. While the detectives don’t provide any sort of counseling, they do ask how things are going and keep receptive to red flags (for example, evidence of heavy drug use that could weaken ones’ resolve) and Fields said “they know that I’m coming,” which helps many offenders stay on a straight path.

To give you an idea on the scope of their workload, there are 1154 registered sex offenders living in Seattle proper (and 3,485 total in King County). 137 of those live in the Southwest Precinct, including West Seattle and South Park, which Fields said is the lowest population of Seattle precincts.

Level 2 and 3 offenders can be located online at http://www.icrimewatch.net/ , where one can simply enter their address and see any offenders living within a certain radius. Rather than a specific address, only the “100” block is given. This is part of that balancing act, letting people know an offender lives nearby but stopping short of providing a specific address to avoid vigilantism or backlash against the offenders.

Level 1 offenders are generally not listed on the registry, but they are still checked on by detectives once every six months, just like level 2 offenders. Level 3 offenders are checked on once every 90 days.

Fields said kidnappers who abduct a minor are also listed on the registry even if there was no sexual motivation to their crime. He cited the example of a man who stole a car that happened to have an infant in the backseat (unbeknownst to the criminal). Whether he likes it or not, Fields said, he’s listed. Beyond that, registered sex offender crimes can range from lurking to rape, both of adults and minors.

Offenders are required to register with the King County Sheriff’s Office after their incarceration has ended, and have to do so within three days of their release, Fields said. That includes providing a fixed address and if they are homeless, checking in with the Sheriff’s Office once a week to tell them where they have been sleeping.

Where can a sex offender live?
If an offender spent time in prison they are generally released but still under Department of Corrections supervision (or probation) for varying amounts of time. Fields said sex offenders on probation are not allowed to move in next to schools, day cares and other facilities where children are often present, but once their term is up they are free to move wherever they like.

One couple in attendance asked how it is possible that a level 3 offender moved into the North Admiral district recently, an area flush with schools. The answer, Fields said, is that they simply have that right.

What can the concerned do?
One man with two small children, ages 4 and 6, came to the meeting because a level 3 offender just moved in right next door to his West Seattle home. Knowing his neighbor’s past, he wondered how to navigate both his and his childs' behavior towards a man with every legal right to be there.

Fields and Stevenson admitted there is no easy answer, but recommended explaining to his children that they need to stay away from their neighbor. As for the adults, they said it’s a personal judgment call as to whether they should be friendly or avoid him as well.

The detectives said the reality is no one knows whether a registered sex offender is at risk of offending again. While some stay out of trouble for life after incarceration, others do reoffend. Fields equated the struggles of many sex offenders, especially those attracted to children, to those of an alcoholic. Just as an alcoholic is at risk of relapse with one drink, a sex offender can reoffend with the dangerous combination of triggers, a weakened will and an opportunity.

Stevenson pointed out that most sex offenses against children are perpetrated by someone close to the family, and that while random acts get massive media attention, they are quite rare. Identifying a sex offender (beyond the registry) is an impossible task, they said, as they come in all types – men to women, young to old, affluent to disheveled.

The issue of spreading the word also came up, with an Admiral-area couple asking why bulletins identifying a sex offender who recently moved in were taken down (they were not put up by police). Fields said while those offenders are easily found on the internet, posting bulletins in public crosses the line of privacy and harassment according to state law.

Instead, he encouraged neighbors to get involved with or form a block watch where the lines of communication open up. He said there is nothing wrong with emailing a sex offender bulletin to a neighbor, or even handing them a print out. The West Seattle Block Watch Captains’ Network is an ideal source for information on how to join or form one, and their contact information can be found online at www.wsblockwatchnet.wordpress.com/.

With only two detectives covering the entirety of Seattle, Fields said “you are our eyes and ears. We need your help.” He encouraged all West Seattleites to contact their office if they believe a registered sex offender has moved away (to ensure he or she registered their new address) or with additional questions. Their number is 206-684-0410. Fields email address is timothy.fields@seattle.gov.

For more information, including a very useful tip sheet entitled “What to Watch for: Grooming behaviors of a Sex Offender," we recommend exploring the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center online at www.kcsarc.stage.bisc.com/

The West Seattle Block Watch Captains’ Network meets on the fourth Tuesday of most months, 6:30-8 PM, SW Police Precinct Meeting Room (2300 SW Webster Street).

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