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NOTICE RULE IN MEGAN'S LAW TROUBLES POLICE

The 55-year-old sex offender may be the best-known ex-con in Erie County.

Residents in more than 20,000 West Seneca and Orchard Park homes know his name, address and birth date. They know he was convicted of trying to sexually abuse a4-year-old boy. And they've seen his mug shot. All this and more is contained in recent mailings from the two school districts.

That's one extreme of how New York State's Megan's Law has worked.

In Depew, residents in about 50 homes received door-to-door notices that a sexually violent predator lives near them. Anyone wanting more information could obtain it by contacting Depew police. Only five people bothered to obtain the information.

And in Buffalo, the public hasn't been notified about any of the 12 violent sexual predators and current residents who committed their crimes after Megan's Law took effect almost four years ago. City police plan to implement their policy next month, in a process that will involve some of the more than 2,000 schools, block clubs, day-care and community centers and churches.

The notification section of Megan's Law -- part of a law that also forces released sex offenders to register with their local police departments -- still remains a patchwork of vastly different policies and procedures across the region.

"I think it's still in the infancy stages," said Angola Police Chief Patrick F. Puckhaber, president of the Erie County Police Chiefs Association. "We can only do notifications on people who were convicted after January 1996. These people are just starting to be released (from prison)."

Seventeen violent sexual predators who committed their crimes after January 1996 have moved back into Erie County after being released from jail, according to the state. Twelve are in Buffalo; the other five moved into five different suburban towns, though some have moved from town to town.

Megan's Law, which took effect in January 1996, allows -- but doesn't require -- police agencies to notify "vulnerable populations" when violent sexual predators move into their neighborhoods.

The law also forces convicted sex offenders, even those not considered great risks to the public, to register with local police.

Experts across Erie County seem to agree that a uniform notification policy makes a lot of sense, especially since a repeat sex offender looking for his prey doesn't necessarily stop at the city, town or village line. Yet implementing such a policy in Buffalo will be much more difficult, those experts said.

Buffalo has more than 300 sex offenders, probably two-thirds of the registered sex offenders in the county. (Offenders are classified by risk; Level 3 offenders are considered the greatest risk to the public, Level 1 the least.) So the cost to mail a notice to each home about each offender would be prohibitive.

Also, Buffalo children don't necessarily go to school in their home neighborhood, so pinpointing the vulnerable population would be more difficult.

"No matter what we do, we can't possibly notify everyone who may be at risk," Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark said.

"I think we're going to fail more often in the big cities than in the small towns," he added. "There's only so much a notification statute like this can accomplish in a big city."

Some suburban police officials were shocked that Buffalo has yet to notify the public about any violent sexual predators -- the Level 3 offenders under Megan's Law.

No officials would criticize Buffalo police, however.

"There are just so many sex offenders in the city that they have to track and monitor," said Cheektowaga Lt. James Morath. "It's a lot easier for a department that has only three, four or five sex offenders."

Buffalo Police Commissioner Rocco J. Diina announced Friday that his department will implement its new notification procedures sometime in January. The department previously has monitored its sex offenders, requiring that they register with police and put their addresses on a detailed computerized map.

The new procedures for notifying the "vulnerable population" will combine public education with public notification, said Lt. David F. Mann Jr., commander of the Buffalo Police Sex Offense Squad.

Mann plans to use the computerized map to identify all the day-care centers, community centers, neighborhood watch and block clubs, nearby schools and churches in the immediate area of a Level 3 offender. Representatives from those agencies will be invited to a meeting with police to learn how Megan's Law works and what they can do to warn the people at risk.

Those groups also will be asked to help identify anyone else who might be vulnerable to the sex offender.

Then, using the list of affected agencies, police will mail a detailed brochure about the sex offender to those groups. The information will include a photo, details of the crime and conditions of the offender's parole.

"The Buffalo Police Department will not notify citizens in a haphazard manner just to be able to say we have done it," Mann said.

Here's what's happened in some districts outside Buffalo:

Earlier this month, the West Seneca schools sent notices to all parents about the 55-year-old Level 3 offender, who lives in the West Seneca Developmental Center.

That sent off tremors in nearby Orchard Park.

"A number of people called and said, 'Why weren't we notified?' " Orchard Park School Superintendent Charles L. Stoddart has said. "It's literally right across the street from our boundary."

So the Orchard Park schools sent out a detailed mailing to all 12,500 homes in the district, at a reported cost of $4,600.

"I think that's a waste of stamps," one local police official said.

Depew police learned this fall that a Level 3 offender had moved into their village.

The 30-year-old man had sexually abused a 24-year-old woman, so authorities had no reason to believe young children were at risk.

"Why put the school district in a panic, since his only known target was an adult female?" Depew Capt. Thomas J. Domino said.

Detectives went door to door in the offender's neighborhood, advising people that a Level 3 offender lived in the area and telling them they could get more information by going to the police station.

Five people took the trouble to get the full information available under the law. They were able to see the offender's photo but not copy it.

Authorities had to walk a tightrope here, as they do in all cases.

"We wanted to find a happy medium, to protect the innocent people while still protecting the offender's rights," Domino said. "I think we did the right thing in this case."

One Level 3 offender reportedly moved from Derby to Angola to Brant.

When the man moved into Angola this fall, Angola police contacted school officials, who sent letters to neighborhood parents advising them that a Level 3 offender lived in the area and that they could get details from police.

About 25 people went to the Angola police for more information, and they were given the available facts and a photo of the offender.

"I'd rather get sued for giving out too much information rather than not enough," Puckhaber explained.

Hamburg school officials this week will send a second notice to district residents with more detailed information about a Level 2 (moderate) offender living in the district. Last week, school officials sent a two-paragraph notice, prompting hundreds of calls from residents wanting more information about the released offender.

The second notice will include the offender's name and photo, but because he is only a Level 2 offender, authorities cannot release his address.

In Amherst, police have not notified the public about a 36-year-old Level 3 offender, but that's because his attack was on a family member.

"Under normal circumstances, if this guy had reached out into the public and was a predator, we would notify," Assistant Police Chief Ronald H. Hagelberger said.

The Amherst case shows how police, even after developing their own policy, judge situations on a case-by-case basis.

School boards have developed their own policies, which vary somewhat from police.

Some use letters. Others go door to door. Some target only the immediate neighborhood. Others choose a school district. Some agencies notify only about Level 3 offenders. Others notify about the less serious Level 2 offenders.

A huge weight has been dumped on local officials.

"This is a serious public policy issue," Buffalo's Mann said. "The proper use of this information can safeguard children and other potential victims of sexually violent predators. The improper use of this information can cause civil rights violations and unnecessary fear and panic."

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