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Police Using Web To Map Locations Of Sex Offenders Easier way to get Megan's Law data

January 7, 2001

In a new push to spread information about registered sex offenders, police departments in California are posting maps on their Web sites showing the general location where those ex-convicts live, mostly in relation to schools.

From Bakersfield to Fairfield, police say the Internet can be a valuable tool in keeping the community informed and children safe. They see it as a natural extension of Megan's Law, which is supposed to make information about sex offenders available to the public.

Although nearly 25 states allow police to post the names, addresses and sometimes photos of sex offenders on the Internet, California law prohibits it.

People can visit police stations to look at CD-ROMs for information about serious or high-risk sex offenders, including their names, photos, age and sex and physical descriptions. Exact addresses are not available to the general public.

There was an initial flurry of interest in 1996, when California passed Megan's Law, named for a 7-year-old New Jersey girl killed by a child molester who had moved across the street from her family without their knowledge. But since then, few people have taken advantage of the CD-ROMs, police say.

The process can be cumbersome because anyone who wants to view the CD-ROM has to go to the local police station during weekday business hours and has to sign a log and show identification.

Attorney General Bill Lockyer has advocated making it easier for people to use the CD-ROMs by extending the public hours, but he has not supported putting the same information on the Internet, said his spokesman, Nathan Barankin.

The main reason is a fear that sex offenders could network with each other more easily if their names were posted online, Barankin said.

However, the attorney general's office recently advised police that they could post "pin-dot maps" showing the general area where a sex registrant lives.

While most major cities, including San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland and Los Angeles, have not put the maps online, a handful of police departments have taken the step. Fremont is believed to be the first in California. It started to post the information last year.

The latest is Fairfield, whose maps were put online this month. There were 450 hits on the sex offender map in the 24 hours after it was posted, police said.

"We depend on people to help us solve crimes," said Fairfield Police Capt. Bill Gresham. "If we can provide them with information that can help keep their kids safe, I think we're ahead of the game."

Fairfield and Pleasanton modeled their maps on Fremont's example. The sites show dots where sex offenders generally live within a mile radius of schools. In some areas, a dozen or more dots may radiate from schools, while on others there are none. Some sex offender locations show up on multiple maps if they live within a mile of more than one school, while others are not shown if they're outside school areas.

Fremont Police Det. Jon Lopes said the maps, updated quarterly, are popular with parents who want to make sure their children are safe while walking to and from school.

Lopes said the maps spurred renewed interest in the CD-ROMs. Many people who see a dot on a particular street follow up with a visit to the Police Department to look up the registrant's name and the physical description. Since the maps were posted, visits to view the CD-ROM are up to about 10 to 40 a month.

"I've had so many calls from people who don't live in Fremont and are disappointed that their department doesn't have it," Lopes said.

Bakersfield started posting maps a few months ago that show locations of all high-risk sex offenders, not just those living near schools.

"We just wanted to keep the community informed as to where these sexual predators live," said Sgt. Robert Bivens, who also said Bakersfield was the only police department in the Central Valley that was posting such information online.

In other states, detailed information and photos of sex offenders are easily available online to anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection.

In Garland, a suburb of Dallas, the police department updates its site every Tuesday, when new sex offenders come in to register.

Lt. J.D. Bettes said it was important to make that information easily available to the public.

"It also puts the registered sex offender on notice that everybody in the neighborhood knows who they are," he said. "Everybody in the state of Texas or anywhere can look it up on the Web site."

Bettes doesn't think sex offenders gain any advantage from posting that information.

"They've already got their networks," Bettes said. "And they work alone. You don't have that many roving bands of sex offenders."

But the practice has raised concerns. The American Civil Liberties Union is opposed to putting information about sex registrants on the Internet, saying it could lead to vigilantism and could drive sex offenders to avoid registering out of fear of public reprisal.

"It really encourages the community in some ways to focus a lot of negative attention on a particular individual and could bring about the exact opposite of what the sex offender registration is about," said Robert Kim, an ACLU staff attorney in San Francisco. "The natural response for many people in such situations is that it would encourage them to go underground and not report their whereabouts to local law enforcement."

Police say that's not a major concern because sex offenders who don't register can be jailed. And they say they haven't heard of any retribution against sex offenders.

Many people who have seen the maps were surprised to learn that sex offenders were living in their neighborhoods.

Jerri Long, spokeswoman for the Pleasanton Unified School District, said parents were concerned when the local police posted maps in September. That led to a meeting with the police chief at which many parents wanted to find out how they could get more specific information about the sex registrants.

"They think it's a good source of information," Long said. "Probably, there have always been (sex offenders) in our neighborhoods, but we haven't had it marked on the map."

In Fairfield, parents like Roberto de la Cruz, 24, who lives near Dover Middle School, were surprised to learn there were sex registrants in the area.

"People in our neighborhood know each other very well," he said. "We stick together and look for anyone who might not belong."

Jennifer Farrar, 25, was shocked to find out that sex offenders lived near the school.

"I have five kids," said Farrar, who provides day care in her home. "I'm not going to let my kids go to McDonald's on their own anymore. It's not worth it."

Some sex offenders in states that post specific information have been upset about their photos and addresses being posted, said Lt. Thomas Turner of the Virginia State Police, whose Web registry of 8,700 sex offenders has gotten 6 million searches in two years. However, he said, the calls to him run 40 to 1 in favor of keeping the information on the site.

And it's not only parents who use it. Employers can see if job applicants are listed. Women have called Turner and said they discovered through the site that their boyfriends had a history of sex crimes.

"It's a good tool for people who have small children or the elderly or disabled, but it's not foolproof," Turner said. "The ones you've really got to worry about are the ones who aren't on the Internet, who haven't been apprehended yet."

Source: San Francisco Chronicle, by Erin Hallissy