“Keeping fear at a low boil” — homelessness and failure to register

By Steve Yoder . . . The Oklahoma City Police Department pulled off a social media coup on July 7. “Meet the top 10 most wanted individuals being sought by our Sex Offender Registration Unit,” the department posted on its Facebook page. “It’s important we keep tabs on these guys (and gal), so help us find them.” The post engaged a huge number of readers, receiving 1,500 shares and nearly 500 comments.

Told dangerous people were loose on city streets, readers responded. “[She] works at [a local store] I’m fucking sick!” posted one. Shadowproof is withholding this individual’s name and place of work to protect them from retaliation.

Others had their own solutions: “If I spot any I’ll send you the parts.” “Should just chalk these guys up as losses. Let the people deal some justice.” “Take them out back and shoot them.”

The department hasn’t clearly explained how it chose its top 10. At least six were convicted of a sexual crime that happened 10 or more years ago and haven’t been convicted of a new one, according to state information. Their names are published in the state’s sex-offense registry, alongside their photos, personal and workplace addresses, and other information.

No one on the “top 10 most wanted” list was accused of a repeat sexual crime, it appears. Instead, the department had warrants out for them because they had failed to show up in person to update their information on the registry . . .

It is not uncommon for police departments around the country to conduct registry sweeps like this one, looking for registrants whose paperwork is out of compliance. . . .

The logic behind these operations is simple: registrants who don’t update their information pose an imminent threat. But there’s no evidence to support that logic, and law enforcement may have other purposes in mind.

All but one of those targeted in the Oklahoma City sweep appears to have been homeless at the time of the social media post. Four are listed on the state’s registry as “transient.” Five others have addresses in commercial or industrial zones where there are no homes, according to the address data on the department’s Facebook post and the registry. The tenth is listed as “address unknown.” . . .

State policy may well have forced them into homelessness. In 2006, Oklahoma enacted a law barring registrants from living within 2,000 feet of a school or daycare. As a result, 84 percent of the city’s housing was off limits, with the little that remained located in industrial areas with no homes, according to a 2007 Human Rights Watch report. . . .

Filling jails and prisons with people for failing to do paperwork seems like a particularly bad move as more than 242,000 people behind bars have been infected with the coronavirus and at least 1,400 inmates and corrections officers have died, according to the New York Times. 

Those include sixty-year-old New Yorker Hector Rodriguez, a homeless ex-offender sent to Rikers Island on March 4 for failing to register. He died of COVID-19 on June 21. His crime dated to 1979.

In Colorado in early March, 78-year-old Charlie Peterson was arrested for failing to register and was subsequently incarcerated in the Weld County Jail. He died three weeks later of health complications apparently caused by COVID-19.

In January, 51-year-old Charles Hobbs was arrested in Florida for failing to register. He was held in the Miami-Dade jail and died of the coronavirus at the end of April, becoming the first in the jail to die of the illness and likely infecting others.

None of that has deterred cops from continuing to lock up registrants around the country for missing registration deadlines. Stories of those arrests spill across local news sites every week.

There’s almost no evidence the interlocking policies that led Oklahoma City cops to arrest homeless people make anyone safer. Studies in three states between 2009 and 2012, “failed to find any significant differences in recidivism between registration-compliant and noncompliant sex offenders,” notes a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Justice summarizing the research on those convicted of past sexual crimes. . . .

The data on residency restrictions like Oklahoma’s 2,000-foot ban are even more conclusive. The DOJ examined the impact of residency bans since 2004.

“In summary, there is no empirical support for the effectiveness of residence restrictions,” the report concluded.

If anything, the restrictions make communities more dangerous: “In fact, a number of negative unintended consequences have been empirically identified, including loss of housing, loss of support systems and financial hardship that may aggravate rather than mitigate offender risk,” according to the report.

But all of this might miss the point of these roundups. . . .

Keeping fear at a low boil helps gin up more support for cops, and not many registrants push back.

Most registrants are just trying to stay off the radar since vigilantes regularly target them and their families.

“Registrants, like victims, don’t feel they have much of a voice, so very few have the courage to speak up and tell their stories,” writes Jeff Miller, a Utah registrant who was one of the targets of a similar compliance sweep in 2017, by email.

Back in Oklahoma, David says that “sex offenders are an easy pick-on because they don’t fight back.”

It helps that mainstream media often serve as willing partners in framing registration violations as imminent threats. In September, NPR ran a story about law enforcement “losing track of sex offenders” during the pandemic.

“When authorities don’t aggressively pursue sex offenders who flee, they often move undetected, sometimes across state lines, and commit additional sex crimes,” the reporter noted, offering no data to support the claim. . . .

Law enforcement might not get a pass on compliance sweeps for much longer. A few grassroots groups pushed back on Oklahoma City’s social media post. Lori Hamilton, a private investigator who coordinates the group OK Voices, put up a number of comments on the page to correct misinformation.

The National Association for Rational Sex Offender Laws, a nonprofit advocacy group, issued a press release that argued the post “incites mob rule and vigilantism” and demanded it be taken down.

In a 2010 study, a group of top experts on sexual recidivism confirmed what other research was showing: failure to register didn’t predict recidivism.

Those results led them to recommend a reform that would not waste taxpayer dollars.

“In light of the data indicating that a relatively small number of sex offenders fail to comply with registration, and those who do are not apt to reoffend sexually, we suggest that resources might be better allocated to helping sex offenders reintegrate successfully,”  they wrote. “Provisions for stable and meaningful employment, housing, and family support, rather than the dominant model of punitive and surveillance-based supervision, might contribute more beneficially to public safety.”

Read the full piece here at Shadowproof.

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