Suffolk County's homeless sex offenders will be moved out of the Department of Social Services trailers in Riverside and Westhampton trailers and integrated into the county's regular homeless shelter system, if a plan unveiled today by Suffolk Police Chief James Burke is approved by the county legislature.
The county must "end clustering" of homeless sex offenders, Burke told the county legislature's public safety committee Thursday morning. Placing convicted sex offenders together in congregate housing, like the trailers program — or the half-dozen "mini shelters that would each house up to six offenders, under a plan the legislature already approved — is bad public policy, Burke said.
"Let’s face it. If I took 20 bank robbers and put them under the same roof, at the end of the week, what would I come up with?” Burke asked lawmakers. “Twenty better bank robbers,” he said.
The plan would ban housing more than one homeless sex offender in any given shelter, Burke said. And they will not be lodged in any shelter at which DSS places families, Burke said.
"Essentially, we're talking about men's shelters," the chief said in an interview following his presentation.
The police chief detailed plans for what he called "the toughest monitoring and enforcement program in the nation."
The new program will provide information to SCPD patrol officers about every registered offender living within their patrol sectors and require them to verify that offenders are actually living at their registered addresses, establishing permanent patrol checks. Details on registered sex offenders would be available to all police officers through the county's police portal. The police department's electronic intelligence system will cross-check records of reported incidents with the sex offender database information.
The county police department plans to partner with the private nonprofit organization Parents for Megan's Law to create an a better notification and reporting system, Burke said.
Laura Ahearn, executive director of the organization, accompanied Burke to the committee meeting. She described a technology-based, eight-point tracking and community support plan that she said will provide the police and the public with better information and provide improved opportunities for reporting violators.
"Until now, we've focused all of our attention and resources on 4 percent of the offenders," Ahearn said, referring to the 38 to 40 homeless offenders housed in the trailers in Riverside and Westhampton. "We need to shift our focus to the 1,000 sex offenders who are not homeless," she said.
But at least one legislator, DuWayne Gregory (D-Amityville) expressed concern over plans for homeless offenders going forward.
"The plan will put them into shelters, and — from what I was briefed on — motels," Gregory said. "The majority of those are in low-income communities, where there is already an overabundance of shelters and sober homes," Gregory said. "It's good to end clustering in shelters, but what safeguards will prevent clustering in communities? That's a very big concern," Gregory said, "having communities bursting at the seams with these sex offenders. I'd like to see verification that no one community will be burdened with sex offenders."
Asked after the meeting to respond to the legislator's concern, the chief said, "Any DSS placement is going to be done in consultation with the police department, so that police professionals are involved in the process," Burke said in an interview. "Heretofore that has not occurred," he said.
Gregory, the chairman of the county's budget and finance committee, also asked what the anticipated costs of the new program will be.
"It's going to be a lot less than the CHI [mini-shelter] program," Burke said. "That comes in at $4 million."
It will even be less expensive than the current trailer program, which has cost the county more than $1 million a year in transportation costs, Burke said.
"We're transporting them all out to Riverhead and Westhampton. We're paying cab fare from Babylon to Westhampton. That's the killer. We're driving them all out east. It's a 50-mile cab ride," Burke responded. "In this program, the individuals will be placed in homeless shelters throughout the county."
Psychologist Bill O'Leary, who works with Suffolk's convicted sex offenders — both homeless and domiciled — has advocated for a program that would better address rehabilitation and also one that will focus on education and prevention of sex crimes by people who are not on the registry.
He attended today's meeting to find out what the county's new plan would encompass, he said. O'Leary strongly favors ending the trailer program, which he says is expensive and ineffective.
"I'm a little concerned that I haven't been involved in this because treatment is so important," O'Leary said after the meeting. "I'm also concerned about Parents for Megan's Law as a private agency being a part of the monitoring," O'Leary said.
"I have questions. For example, will the county begin turning a blind eye to the residency restrictions that create homelessness?" O'Leary asked. "The forecast is that [the residency restrictions] are going to go away," O'Leary said, referring to a pending court case widely expected to result in the county's residency restrictions law being overturned — as has been every similar law that's been challenged in court.
"But I'm cautiously optimistic," O'Leary said. He will be meeting with County Executive Steve Bellone next week "to discuss the treatment piece," he said. "It should be part of implementation," he said.
The timeline for implementation — integrating the homeless sex offenders into the regular homeless shelter system — is still uncertain, the county police chief acknowledged in an interview after the meeting. Timing will depend on how quickly the legislature acts, he said.
"But I'll tell you what's not going to happen. The trailers are not going to go away overnight. It's going to take some time," Burke said.
County Legislator Jay Schneiderman, who has fought for more than seven years to get the homeless sex offender trailers off the East End, said he's encouraged.
"It seems like a good plan to me," Schneiderman said. The legislation putting it in place could come up for a vote as early as next week, he said. If the county executive submits it with a certificate of necessity, it would be eligible for a vote on Tuesday, he said, If it's submitted through the regular process, it wouldn't be voted on until April, Schneiderman said.
The path taken will depend on how many questions legislators have about the plan, he said.
Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said Bellone is "supportive of the plan put forward by the police department and Parents for Megan's Law. "We're going to discuss our legislative strategy going forward," Schneider said in an interview.
Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter credited Schneiderman and Riverhead Assessor Mason Haas, for pushing the county executive to act. "If they had not put together that meeting last night, I doubt we'd have this plan today," Walter said. "So kudos to them."
Walter said he was disappointed Bellone or "someone very high up in his office" was not in attendance at the meeting in the Riverhead county center to present the plan to the people of the communities that have been living with the trailers for so long. "It's telling that the county executive didn't show up last night," Walter said.
The East End police departments have not yet been pulled into the loop on the plan, the Suffolk chief said. Burke said Suffolk police officials will soon meet with the East End chiefs to discuss it. The county police intelligence system is county-wide, Burke said. The East End departments — as well as village police departments throughout the county — can use the county police databases in the same way as the county department plans to use them : providing information directly to patrol cars, instituting permanent patrol checks to verify registered addresses, and the like.
"They have the apparatus available to them," Burke said. "I cannot dictate to Chief Hegermiller what to do."
Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller could not immediately be reached for comment.
Photo captions (from top): 1. Suffolk Police Chief James Burke, appeared before the county legislature's public safety committee Jan. 31 to detail a new sex offender monitoring and enforcement plan. 2. Legislator DuWayne Gregory of Amityville, expressed concerns about an existing "overabundance" of shelters and sober houses in low-income communities.
RiverheadLOCAL photos by Denise Civileti