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POLICE TO START NOTIFICATIONS ON RELEASE OF SEX OFFENDERS

Megan's Law is coming to a school, a day-care facility or a community center near you.

Finally.

Police chiefs in Erie County are fine-tuning new 12-page guidelines from District Attorney Frank J. Clark about how to notify the community when a sex offender is released from jail.

Clark hopes that local police agencies, working with the same basic set of guidelines, will begin notification procedures late next month.

Megan's Law took effect in January 1996, containing two basic provisions:

The registration component forces released sex offenders to register periodically with their local police agency. Police can keep track of convicted sex offenders, who are considered much more likely than other offenders to commit similar crimes again.

The notification provision allows -- but doesn't force -- police departments to notify "vulnerable populations" when violent sexual predators move into their neighborhoods. Virtually no local police agencies have taken advantage of the notification provision.

Here's an example of how the notification can work:

If a repeat or violent sex offender has been convicted of molesting children after January 1996, the law allows police to contact officials at nearby schools, day-care facilities, playgrounds, community centers -- even the neighbors.

Two problems have plagued the public-notification efforts.

A federal court injunction allows notification only for offenders who committed their sex crimes on or after Jan. 21, 1996, the day the law took effect. Many of those offenders are just starting to be released from jail now.

The law was written so vaguely that local police chiefs said they never learned exactly whom should be notified.

The new local guidelines, which still are being reworked, are vague. But interviews with several local law enforcement leaders strongly suggest that police won't conduct any massive door-to-door notifications.

"We don't have the capacity to go out one, two or three miles and make individual (door-to-door) notifications," Clark pointed out. "It's just not feasible. It's more important that we notify the readily identifiable vulnerable population within the immediate area."

In most suburban towns, police are expected to contact the school district, the nearby elementary schools and perhaps all day-care centers and youth recreation programs in the town.

In the suburbs, where neighborhood children attend school together, warning the "vulnerable population" may not be difficult.

"Once word gets out to the schools, it spreads very quickly through the community," said Lt. James Morath of Cheektowaga.

The task is a little trickier in the City of Buffalo.

Lt. David F. Mann Jr., commander of the Buffalo Sex Offense Squad, vows to look at each case separately and try to determine the "psychological borders" of the person's neighborhood.

"I'm not going to notify a school on Hertel Avenue or Bailey Avenue if there's a sex offender living on Allen Street," he explained. "I'm going to direct my efforts to that neighborhood: Allentown, downtown, the lower West Side."

Pledging that the community's safety will be his main concern, Mann plans to use community centers and block clubs to help identify who is most vulnerable.

"Say you have an offender who's been convicted twice of sexually assaulting 9-year-old boys who were strangers," Mann said. "I'm going to do the best I can to make sure any parent of a 9-year-old boy in that area is notified."

Because of the federal court injunction sparked by Megan's Law, police still have their hands tied when any resident asks for information about a released sex offender who committed his crime before January 1996.

"It's a very difficult position for us," Cheektowaga's Morath said. "We have the information available, but we are forbidden by this injunction from releasing it."

Every police chief will be free to revise the guidelines to fit the town's needs, but chiefs across the county see a need to collaborate with each other.

For one thing, some released offenders will live close to a town or city line, so that police, schools and day-care centers in a neighboring town or city may need to be notified.

Universal guidelines also will keep sex offenders from flocking to a city or town that decides not to notify anyone.

"Everyone in the county, including the sex offenders, will know what the rules are," one chief said.

The notification provision of Megan's Law has proven hollow so far. But Morath hailed that provision, saying it was well-intentioned.

"And I think it will only get better," he added.

Other law enforcement officials, while welcoming Megan's Law as a useful tool for notifying the most-vulnerable people, keep insisting that it's no panacea. The image of the stranger lurking behind the bushes to grab and molest a child is largely a myth, they say.

"I think the expectation (of Megan's Law) is going to far exceed the reality," Clark said. "If your children are at risk, they're at risk from somebody you know, maybe even a member of your family."

"No 'Megan's Law' in the world is going to protect you from that," he added.

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