Las Vegas Sun

November 25, 2017

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Flawed sex offender tracking leads to wrong door

It's worse during the holidays. Christmas, New Year's, Halloween. That's when they really start knocking. Calling him out in the middle of the night. Showing up at his stoop in angry packs.

"Christopher," they wheeze through the front door, "Christopherrrrrr - we know you're in there ... "

Christopher Risdon is a 35-year-old sex offender who was busted for child porn. But Risdon doesn't live at this Tropicana Avenue apartment. Hasn't for years. So when the curious (if that's really all they are) come calling, they're now ringing the wrong doorbell. Despite what sex offender-tracking Web sites say, this apartment belongs to Harry Berlin, 71 years old, frail and, frankly, petrified.

"I'm a nervous wreck," he says, holding out his hands. They quake like palsy.

For nearly two years Berlin's address has been reported as Risdon's on a Nevada Web site. Two months ago it popped up again, this time on Metro Police's new sex offender watch Web site.

Now whenever the Web site gets TV attention, Berlin says, people come looking for Risdon. Maybe to rough him up. Or at least give him a good scare. Instead, they terrorize Berlin.

Depending on whom you ask, this is either a disturbing example of why the Web site should be taken down or an inevitable and easily remedied occurrence when dealing with sex offenders. It's a debate complicated by changing laws and different notions about what is necessary to protect a community, and at what cost.

Berlin first saw his address posted on the Nevada Public Safety Department's sex offender Web site in January of last year. Aghast, he called the agency's headquarters in Carson City to have the error corrected. He was told to take it up with Metro. He did, and was told to go back to the state.

So while Christopher Risdon was relocating to parts unknown, Berlin's complaint was suffocating in a bureaucratic morass.

Then, in September, Metro launched its own Web site. Visitors started showing up at Berlin's doorstep in groups. Once a woman and a child came for Christopher. Through the peephole, Berlin saw a handful of men lurking in the shadows behind her. He stayed inside.

"I'm getting paranoid," he said. This from a man who has never had so much as a traffic ticket.

Frustrated and scared, Berlin decided he wasn't going to take his complaint to Metro. Instead, he took it to the Nevada American Civil Liberties Union, which quickly found fault with the department's Web site. As ACLU Executive Director Gary Peck explains it, even one address incorrectly listed as the home of a sex offender is a grave problem, one that exposes Metro to serious civil liability and, more important, suggests the Web site is fundamentally flawed.

"It's deeply disturbing to me that the (address) reporting is not accurate," Peck said. "At the very least, it's benign neglect."

Metro Sgt. Steve Rossi, who works in Metro's Sex Offender Apprehension program, disagrees. The Web site is a public service tool, he said. The law puts the burden on sex offenders to report their addresses, and because convicted felons aren't always eager to update police on their whereabouts, the Web site comes with a disclaimer that the information should not be used to harass or terrorize anyone, he said.

Implicit in this disclaimer is the fact that information online isn't 100 percent accurate. Rossi says it's an unavoidable reality when dealing with sex offenders.

"We are taking information from convicted felons to populate these databases," Rossi says. "In a perfect world, we would be able to go out on a regular basis and physically confirm (the data), but with more than 4,000 offenders, that's just not possible."

This partially explains the numerous problems that can be found on sex offender registries across the country, said University of Louisville professor Richard Tewksbury, who researches registries and community response to sex offenders.

Although police are charged with checking the information provided on these Web sites, that task often takes a back seat to more pressing concerns, such as crimes in progress.

Besides, Tewksbury says, "we know that government databases of any and all forms are replete with problems, errors and inaccuracy. It's not at all surprising."

(On the state's site, Risdon was described as 5 feet 8 and 200 pounds. On the Metro site, he was 5 feet 10 and 175 pounds. But both sites had one thing in common: Berlin's address.)

Citizens occasionally call to report that their address is wrongly listed, Rossi says, and Metro sends detectives to the location and corrects the Web site when necessary

So, Peck wants to know: Why is Berlin still being harassed?

Nevada law requires that a central state agency maintain one searchable online sex offender registry - this is the Public Safety Department's site. Any other Nevada sex offender-monitoring Web site is just a different version of the same thing.

Metro's site is run by a private company, Watch Systems LLC, at a cost of $14,000 a year, covered entirely by a Justice Department grant.

That a private company has been hired to handle the sex offender database is another bone of contention for the ACLU, and not just because the information is sensitive.

"It seems pointless given that the state has a perfectly good Web site," said ACLU staff attorney Maggie McLetchie. "Why even do it?"

Metro decided to launch its own sex offender Web site to increase public awareness, Sheriff Doug Gillespie said. Watch Systems was hired to avoid "burdening our technology section" with the task of maintaining a constantly changing Web site.

The department also wanted "to look to the future," Gillespie said, by taking advantage of new laws that require Metro to take a bigger role in monitoring sex offenders.

Effective July 1, Metro will be responsible for keeping track of local sex offenders, a task historically managed by the state's Public Safety Department.

"The offenders no longer have contact with the state," Rossi said. "They do everything with us, and we supply the state everything."

So if Metro will be the first to collect the data, why not put that information on Metro's Web site? Because the site is not just for citizens, Rossi said, but has been built to include additional information on each offender for department use only.

A situation, by the way, that also makes the ACLU uncomfortable - a private database of personal information, run by a for-profit company.

Tewksbury says private companies might do a better job of managing databases than the government could. And although he has not heard of another police department subcontracting a sex offender Web site, the professor is not concerned.

"The fact that for-profit entities are managing the sites gives us some degree of optimism that they will have an efficient database," he said.

The Web site is not the only responsibility Watch Systems handles for Metro. The company also sends out community notification letters to citizens living near sex offenders deemed dangerous.

Moreover, Metro's Web site offers a feature the state's site does not - users can sign up for e-mail alerts if an offender moves to their community.

But none of this matters if the information can't be trusted, Peck said.

And it's a second disclaimer, one written by Watch Systems, that reminds the user nothing online can be taken as absolute truth:

"(Watch Systems) has not and will not verify, warrant, vouch or confirm the accuracy of the data posted and makes no warranties whatsoever that the data is accurate or timely when posted by the related agency ..."

If the site is for community protection, Peck asks, isn't that goal undermined by Berlin's terror? And what happens if Berlin, or someone else in his circumstance, is attacked - who's at fault then?

"This whole system really does encourage a kind of vigilantism," Peck said. "There is potential here for real harm to come to real people."

The police see things differently.

Isn't there potential, Rossi says, for real harm to come to people living near dangerous sex offenders? And isn't it better they have more information? Even if that information can't always be absolutely guaranteed?

On Wednesday, two Metro detectives went to Berlin's apartment to verify that he is, in fact, not Christopher Risdon. They checked his ID and, satisfied he isn't the sex offender, asked Berlin to sign a waiver saying as much.

Berlin refused to sign. He was scared and didn't want to do anything without consulting with the ACLU first.

Barry Berlin, explaining Harry Berlin's decision, said, "My brother believes that in America you do not have to sign papers stating that you are not a sex offender just so that you can live in your own apartment without police interference."

But police were satisfied enough with what they found that Berlin's address has been taken off the Public Safety Department's and Metro's sex offender Web sites.

Meanwhile, local TV news anchors are still putting on their serious faces to suggest Joe Citizen go online and search his neighborhood for predators.

And Berlin is still spooked.

"I'm afraid to stay in my apartment," he said, "and I'm afraid to come out."

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