RONKONKOMA, N.Y. (AP) — The "registry verification representatives" wear street clothes and travel in nondescript Toyota sedans. They work in pairs, knocking on doors at run-down trailers and waterfront mansions to find out if registered sex offenders are actually living where they say they are.
But this is not some elite police unit. It is part of an unusual public-private partnership in Long Island's Suffolk County that uses six retired New York City police officers to hold ex-cons accountable to sex-offender registry laws.
Since 2013, Suffolk County has paid the nonprofit group Parents for Megan's Law about $780,000 a year to run the program, resulting in 8,700 home checks and 104 people charged with violating the registry law. Detectives found some offenders on the registry were deceased or deported; others listed addresses that ended up being vacant lots or abandoned homes.
County officials have deemed the program, which also includes counseling services for crime victims, a success and want the nonprofit's three-year contract renewed, but some are questioning whether the checks amount to harassment and whether a private entity should be performing duties that traditionally have been the purview of law enforcement.
A registered sex offender claimed in a federal lawsuit filed last year that he was "the target of two harassing investigations" by Parents For Megan's Law. The offender, who was only identified in court papers as John Jones because of concerns about retribution, said retired officers came to his home "without a warrant and absent any suspicion."
The lawsuit is pending. A judge ruled last month that despite its status as a private organization, Parents for Megan's Law could be sued for civil rights violations in its role as a "state actor."
There are also questions about whether the effort is achieving the main goal of sex registries, which is to prevent habitual rapists and molesters from striking again.
The laws, which require sex offenders to tell authorities where they are living, are named for Megan Kanka, a 7-year-old New Jersey girl who was raped and killed in 1994 by a twice-convicted sex offender who lived near her.
Dr. Bill O'Leary, a forensic psychologist and longtime critic of the program, said intense scrutiny of convicts is a poor use of resources because 95 percent of sexual abuse occurs between a victim and a known acquaintance, not a stranger living down the street.
"One of the most unethical pieces of the situation has been saying that we need to do this to prevent sexual abuse when we know statistically that this has nothing to do with preventing sexual abuse," he said.
Laura Ahearn, executive director of Parents for Meghan's Law, declined to comment on the lawsuit, but said she is confident the program helps deter crime.
"We can't allow state and federal lawmakers to say you have a great sex offender registry law, and then walk away from it," Ahearn said. "If you're going to have a registry, that registry needs to be up-to-date and accurate."
She also said her group is saving taxpayers money in a county where active-duty detectives can earn as much as $200,000 annually, including benefits.
"Do you really want that detective who is highly skilled at doing an investigation knocking on the door of a registrant? No, you don't," she said.
The Suffolk County Police Department maintains oversight over the program and approves all home visits in advance.
The visits are unannounced. On a recent morning, retired detectives carrying IDs, but not badges, checked on the status of three offenders, but no one answered at any of the homes. They return as many as five times before contacting the police department to suggest an investigation of an offender's whereabouts.
Jack Rinchich, president of the National Association of Chiefs of Police/American Police Hall of Fame, said he knew of no similar program in the country.
It's not clear whether Suffolk's efforts since 2013 have been more successful than in years past. The department could not immediately provide such statistics.
In neighboring Nassau County, the police department makes random compliance checks of offenders and has a 99-percent compliance rate, said Detective Lt. Richard LeBrun.
The program hasn't been operating long enough to draw conclusions about its impact on recidivism. According to Suffolk police, two people on the registry who would have been subject to the checks have been arrested for new sex crimes since 2013.
Statewide, at least 2,230 arrests have been reported to the Department of Criminal Justice Services for offenders who failed to register since 2013. As of early March, there were 39,313 registered offenders in the state, with the whereabouts of 463 unknown.
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This story has been corrected to show the contract is for about $780,000 a year, not $900,000.