BREMERTON — For those who get a slightly queasy feeling at the idea of a convicted sex offender moving in on your street, Steve Strachan feels your pain.
Strachan, Bremerton’s chief of police, doesn’t like the idea of having to accept convicted Level 3 sex offenders in the community — at all. He admits that he takes a rather protective and personal view of local residents’ safety. On the other hand, he is also a realist who reluctantly accepts the fact that, simply put, it is what it is.
“The Department of Corrections has a tough job, and I’m respectful of that,” said Strachan. “Sex offenders have to live somewhere, and assuming they’ve served their time, they have the constitutional right to live wherever they want. But I wish we (local law enforcement) had more of a say in where that is.”
The issue moved to the forefront of public consciousness recently when two young women were attacked as they walked their dogs in Stephenson Canyon. The attacker, Vern Hess, was a convicted Level 3 sex offender most likely to reoffend) who had recently moved to Bremerton from Pierce County.
The two young women surprised Hess by fighting back. Spooked by their energetic resistance, Hess ran into the woods, but was stopped and then arrested by a Bremerton police officer who responded to a 911 call within a few minutes of the attack.
Compounding public concerns was a notice that went out on Aug. 1 that still another registered sex offender, Jonathan Margart, had moved into the apartment building at 900 Washington Ave. in Bremerton.
Strachan wondered why an offender like Hess was allowed to move into the community without the police being consulted.
It falls to the State Department of Corrections to make the decision on where to place offenders. It’s an unpopular role, and a spokesman for the department sounded resigned to making an unwinnable decision. They are painfully aware that no matter what decision they make, someone will be angry.
“If they’ve been convicted and served their time, as Vern Hess had, they can live where they want,” said Jeremy Barclay, the communications director for DOC. “About 95 percent of convicted sex offenders will eventually be released. They have to live somewhere.”
A related issue is the practice of concentrating offenders in homes or apartment buildings. It is particularly unpopular with law-abiding residents who are fearful someone they know will be targeted. Hess lived in an apartment building with several other offenders, just three blocks from Stephenson Canyon.
But there is good reason for that, said Barclay.
“Offenders who live with or near other offenders tend to self-police,” he said. “If an offender lives alone and away from others, a stressful event could trigger another offense. They tend to keep an eye on each other.”
It’s important to note that it is a crime to harass or intimidate sex offenders in the hope of driving them away. If the public adopts a vigilante stance, law-enforcement officials say, it can render their all-important community efforts nearly impossible.
In the end, the best weapon residents have to protect themselves is their own computer. Both the Department of Corrections and the King County Sheriff’s office maintain good websites to track sex offenders who, if any, have moved in or out of your community within up to a 2-mile radius of your address. The sites are updated frequently, but even so, sex offenders tend to move around a lot. The King County Sheriff’s website has a feature to sign up for email alerts.
The only real solution is for people to work within the system to try to make an inherently difficult and unpopular process work.
“It really does take a village,” said Barclay.
To see a list of registered sex offenders in your area, visit www.kitsapgov.com/sheriff/sexoffenders/information.htm.