A North Bellmore high school student searched his block on an online sex offender map last month and found something that unnerved the whole neighborhood: A Level 2 sex offender who served one year in Nassau County jail for sexually abusing a 10-year-old girl was not only living near him, but within 1,000 feet of a school, in violation of county law. Less than a week later, at a community meeting in Merrick, Nassau County Police Commissioner Lawrence Mulvey got an earful from a room full of angry parents who accused police of failing to notify them and thereby leaving kids at risk.
The commissioner did his best to assure the crowd that officers are aware of all registered sex offenders in their patrol areas and that the errant offender would be forced to leave. “I have a 15-year-old daughter,” one unappeased father barked. “If he comes near her you’re going to be ‘cuffing me!”
It turns out Special Victims Section detectives had visited the sex offender’s new home prior to the meeting and shortly after he moved in on Oct. 14, which was on or about the same day that the student made the discovery and his neighbors reported it. The Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District, which has a sex offender alert program, was also called into question at the meeting, but schools can’t alert parents until detectives have notified administrators—and it was that built-in lag that ticked the parents off. But if that pile-on wasn’t enough, the next day the Town of Babylon released a report that suggested the current system of sex offender restrictions and alerts, although well-intentioned, leaves much to be desired.
“We need to take a look at the sex offender system that we have created here in New York and we need to ask ourselves if we’re being given a false sense of security,” said Babylon Town Supervisor Steve Bellone at an Oct. 21 news conference on the steps of town hall. He called on New York State to conduct statewide analysis of residency restriction laws.
Bellone was concerned that Suffolk’s residency restrictions, which bar convicted child molesters, rapists and other sex offenders from living near schools and playgrounds, would drive offenders “underground” because of the difficulty in finding housing. He also took issue with the notification system—school districts vary in their methods—and the accuracy of information on the state sex offender registry, which town investigators found was flawed in some cases.
Like in the North Bellmore case, it turned out that vigilance fueled a scathing reaction to the complex and sometimes inconsistent system intended to protect the public. Still, the system is not without its defenders.
“It is not residency restriction that motivates a sex offender to violate the law, it is their perception that law enforcement is not dedicated to ensuring compliance,” says Laura Ahearn, executive director of Stony Brook-based Parents For Megan’s Law and the Crime Victims Center, a group that advocates for sex crime victims and other victims of violent crime and lobbies for tougher laws governing sex offenders. Although the burden is on the sex offender to tell authorities where they live, Suffolk has a compliance rate of between 95 and 98 percent and Nassau is comparable, Ahearn says.
She adds that sex offenders are mistaken if they think police are slacking, since Nassau and Suffolk counties have some of the strictest laws in New York State. Some towns and villages have their own additional residency restrictions as well, and still more are currently up for debate.
As for more immediate notifications, Ahearn suggests that the public sign up for e-mail alerts through her website, www.parentsformeganslaw.com, where users can register to be notified if a sex offender moves into their neighborhood by entering their zip code. Users can enter multiple zip codes as well, so they can be notified about sex offenders who move into nearby neighboring school districts that they otherwise wouldn’t be alerted to, Ahearn says.
Such diligence pays, because with the nearly 1,500 registered sex offenders on Long Island—Nassau has 484 and Suffolk has 987, as of Nov. 13—there are equally as many special circumstances. Despite what the state registry says on a given day, moves may be in progress and addresses therefore inaccurate, a warrant may already be out for the offender’s arrest, or an offender may be grandfathered into homes near schools, meaning they can stay because they lived there before residency restriction laws were enacted.
As for Kevin Johnson, the convicted child molester who was found to be living too close to Grand Avenue Middle School in North Bellmore, he has until mid-December to move out—60 days from the date of notice of eviction, same as anyone else.
Whether the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services will take Babylon’s recommendations is unclear, but spokesman John Caher says the agency is also concerned with the “inconsistency” of the residency restrictions.
Inevitably, once Johnson moves, he will infuriate his next set of neighbors. Says Caher: “They have to live somewhere.”