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Special Police Squad Would Track Released Sex Predators

Lori Culbert, The Vancouver (Canada) Sun

Vancouver, Canada police chief Jamie Graham wants to create a new 14-officer unit that would provide undercover surveillance on high-risk sexual predators -- especially those who target children -- after they are released from prison.

Graham hopes to launch the integrated sexual predator operations team, or ISPOT, early next year, but he will first have to get funding approved in the 2004 budget.

"We know that there are hard-core sex offenders who live in Vancouver, that make this city unsafe for many vulnerable people," he said Monday in an interview with The Vancouver Sun. "We're beyond worried about money now. We're committed now to put together some teams to go after these people."

The proposed squad would be based on a trial project in which the RCMP and Lower Mainland police agencies formed a temporary region-wide team, from November 2002 to February 2003, to track the movements of sexual predators released from custody. Precise details were not available Monday, but Graham said the results were "amazing."

That trial project was launched following the release of a startling RCMP-municipal police study in April 2002 that detailed the results of a team of investigators who tailed 12 high-risk sex offenders for just 20 days: the officers caught seven of them committing new offences ranging from breach of probation to sexual assault and possession of child pornography.

Graham, who is head of the B.C. Chiefs of Police Association, said his hope is that if Vancouver establishes a permanent unit, other agencies will get involved and the squad will eventually be operating region-wide.

Currently 124 offenders, who served time in federal prisons for sex crimes, are living in B.C. and being supervised by Corrections Canada.

That includes 49 in halfway houses. The number doesn't include inmates released from provincial jails.

When the joint RCMP-municipal police study was released in April 2002, RCMP Inspector Keith Davidson said he hoped the findings would result in six to 10 surveillance teams, with 10 officers each, operating across the Lower Mainland, at a cost of $10 million a year. That has not materialized.

Delta police Chief Jim Cessford, who was head of the B.C. Chiefs of Police Association at the time, said Monday that many agencies loved the idea, but the problem was finding funding for the aggressive plan.

Delta participated in the pilot project in 2002/2003, and Cessford said his officers successfully identified sexual offenders who had breached parole conditions. But it was difficult, he said, to absorb the loss of a few officers to the project.

However, he added that police chiefs are now discussing in their regular meetings establishing a permanent, region-wide team. "We're in the process now of getting these teams going, and more of a long-term commitment. But it's so difficult with the resources to do everything," Cessford said.

Municipal departments in B.C. will be particularly hard hit in 2004, because an unprecedented number of officers are retiring this year due to changes in their pension plans.

Vancouver alone will lose about 15 per cent of its force, but Graham said he is now committed to pursue the creation of two seven-officer teams.

He said this type of crime is of high importance to the public, and he plans to make a "good solid business case" to politicians to get funding for the unit.

"There is no cure to these hard-core sex offenders, but there are some good mechanisms to control their urges," he said. "Our role is that if they are going to re-offend, they are going to be in jail."

He said the recent case of accused sex offender Leonardo da Vancouver -- who police warned women and children to stay away from after a judge released him from custody last week -- is the type of file that could be handled by the proposed unit.

In Delta, Cessford said he wouldn't have the money to launch his own sexual-predator surveillance team, but he has asked for additional resources in the 2004 budget to participate in several integrated Lower Mainland police units, which could potentially include such a team.

"[Sexual predators] are cross-boundary," he said. "We are better served to do it as a combined unit to target them."

Police agencies in the Victoria area also launched a pilot surveillance project in 2002.

In the meantime, Cessford said his officers do watch some parolees and knock on the doors of some offenders to let them know police are monitoring them. But he added it is often important for properly trained officers to do surveillance on high-risk cases, because a botched job could drive an offender underground.

Parole officers worked closely with police during the ISPOT pilot project in 2002/2003 to help identify high-risk offenders in the community, said Tim Goodsell, associate area director of Corrections Canada's Lower Mainland parole office.

He said parole officers identified offenders deemed high-risk -- often because they refused treatment in prison -- and advised ISPOT, who then monitored whether they violated their parole conditions.

Corrections would support working with ISPOT, but Goodsell noted his office already meets regularly with police to discuss high-risk cases.

He rejected the argument that the surveillance could be unfair to offenders trying to put their lives back on track.

"If they don't do anything, then they don't have anything to fear," he said.

Dr. Arthur Gordon, executive director of Corrections Canada's regional treatment centre in Abbotsford, said Corrections staff and parole officers could provide police with the best background on offenders. For instance, history can show some offenders get withdrawn when they are about to re-offend, or hang around bars or start cruising or hang out in malls.

"There are warning signs. So, part of our surveillance has to be informed," said Gordon, who researches and directs programs for sex-offenders.

He stressed that reoffending among sexual predators is not an epidemic. Studies show sexual offenders have about an 18- or 19-per-cent recidivism rate over a five-year period, but with good treatment programs in prisons and in the community, that can be reduced to eight or nine per cent.

Gordon said continuing ongoing treatment, combined with supervision, the police and the community, is the best way to avoid offenders re-offending. However, he also warned that some offenders refuse treatment.

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