Faceless predators: Sheriff’s office won’t release booking photos of some convicted child molesters
Office concerned photos may help people identify victims
It is becoming a frequent reading chore in Douglas County — a news article about a man who has been convicted of sexually abusing a child. You read the article, see the name of the perpetrator and perhaps have the same reaction that many do: disgust at the depravity and sorrow for those who have been hurt.
Then your eyes move about the page, and you see the small, mugshot-like photo of the perpetrator. Your emotions suddenly become more intense and complex. You hadn’t recognized his name, but you sure recognize his face. He’s the live-in boyfriend of your child’s babysitter, or he’s an assistant coach on your child’s old basketball team, or he is any of the other numerous individuals whom you — and perhaps your child — know by sight but don’t know by name.
Now your emotions turn to a whole lot of questions. When was your child alone with this person? Do you need to have a conversation with your child? If so, what type? Those concerns and many more can come upon you in a moment’s notice, if you happen to see the photo.
In Douglas County, there is a good chance you won’t see that photo.
Talking with your children
When Lawrence resident Andrew L. Tribble was charged last month with multiple counts of rape, sodomy and other offenses against a child, it left some area parents with questions, but perhaps particularly those in the baseball and softball community.
Tribble has been a coach with youth league baseball and softball programs for years, according to various items previously published about Tribble.
The charges against Tribble, 39, thus far allege that he assaulted a single victim. Nothing in the charges have indicated the assaults involved his connection with youth league sports, but as is common in these cases, few details have been released about the victim or the alleged crimes.
Several professionals in the sexual violence prevention field told the Journal-World it would be natural for area parents to have questions about whether Tribble had been in contact with their children.
“What is truly on the mind of parents right now is a pretty wide array of emotions,” said Kathy Williams, executive director of the Wichita Area Sexual Assault Center.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office has refused to release Tribble’s booking photo, making it more difficult for some parents to ascertain whether their children have interacted with him.
Regardless, professionals who talked with the Journal-World offered several tips for parents who are contemplating discussing the topic of sexual assault with their children. They include:
• “Have an honest conversation about what has happened in the community,” Laura Palumbo with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center said. “Have that conversation in a way that is pretty direct. Depending on how old your child is, you want to use terminology that is appropriate, but you want them to understand that there was a person who was trusted in the community and there was inappropriate touching, inappropriate activity. Judge the reaction of your child.”
• “We don’t want to scare kids, but we want to arm them with information,” Williams said. “Make sure they know the adults that they can come and talk to.”
• Reach out to local professionals if you need help, said Chrissy Heikkila, executive director of Lawrence’s Sexual Trauma & Abuse Care Center. The center has an advocacy and response line that is staffed seven days a week, 24 hours per day. Its number is 785-843-8985.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office long has used a provision in state law to pick and choose which mugshots — more technically called booking photos from the Douglas County Jail — to release to the public. That policy is now being used to deny the release of booking photos of some people who have already been convicted of a sex crime against children. In at least one other case, the office has declined to release the photo of a man who has created questions in the community because he has been charged with 12 counts of rape against a child, and he has a long history of serving as a youth league coach in the community.
A representative with the sheriff’s office said the booking photos in those two cases were denied because the photo could help identify the victims of the crime.
“Our goal in law enforcement is to effectively prevent and solve crimes and prosecute criminals, but at the same time protect victims and to not re-victimize someone that has been a victim of something as horrible as a sexual assault by identifying them to the public,” Sgt. Kristen Channel, a spokeswoman for the office, said via email.
But that explanation is puzzling to open government advocates. While they agree that protecting the identity of victims of sexual assault is important, one advocate said it is difficult to understand how the release of a simple booking photo does anything to help a person positively identify a victim of a crime.
“I think that logic is too attenuated to be persuasive,” said Adam Marshall, an attorney for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Guessing vs. identification
Douglas County Sheriff Ken McGovern — as the elected official in the office — ultimately is responsible for determining when a booking photo is released. The Journal-World made multiple attempts to schedule an interview with McGovern, but representatives of the sheriff’s office said McGovern was unavailable for an interview for at least four weeks.
When asked to further explain the office’s position, Channel was unable to point to how the release of a booking photo would help a reader positively identify a victim of a sexual assault.
Instead, she explained it this way: A reader may see an article about a convicted sex offender, and that article may have some information about the victim, such as an age of the victim, whether the victim was known to a perpetrator, and other such details. Channel said that information combined with the name of the perpetrator sometimes is “all that’s needed for someone to figure out who the victim is.” She said this is particularly true when a family member is the victim.
The sheriff’s office has no ability to control whether the name of the person convicted is released to the public. That is controlled by the court, and is routinely done as a matter of law. But state law does allow the sheriff’s office to control whether a booking photo is released. Channel contends releasing the photo would help a broader group of people potentially figure out the victim because some people don’t know the perpetrator by name but do know the perpetrator by sight.
In other words, readers may see the booking photo and realize they know that person’s son or daughter and then come to the conclusion that the son or daughter, for example, was the victim of the crime.
The Journal-World asked Channel whether that constitutes identification of a victim or rather is just a reader irresponsibly making a guess about who a victim might be. Regardless of the distinction, Channel said the office isn’t comfortable with the release of the photos.
“We are not going to help that along,” Channel said of people trying to figure out who a victim is.
The distinction could be important if such matters are litigated in the future. State law does give a district court judge the ability to order that booking photos and other types of investigative records be released to the public, as long as the photo doesn’t “specifically and individually identify the victim of any sexual offense.”
The Journal-World, like most media outlets, has a policy that it will not name the victims of sex crimes, even though the newspaper does often learn their names through covering various court proceedings. The Journal-World also will not provide information about the victim that is so specific that it serves as a de facto identification of the victim, such as stating that the victim is the 13-year old daughter of the accused. The Journal-World also seeks to limit the amount of information it provides that would aid people in guessing the identity of the victim. However, the Journal-World does believe that basic information about the crime and the victim should be reported to meet the expectations that criminal proceedings are open and transparent.
The Journal-World asked multiple officials with sexual abuse prevention organizations about the importance of identifying people who have been convicted or charged with sex crimes against children. Most acknowledged they had not given much thought to the specific issue of releasing booking photos.
But some said they could see how the release of photos would be helpful. By drawing attention to perpetrators, it could help break down some of the stereotypes people have about sexual predators.
“It can be anyone from any economic or educational background,” said Laura Palumbo, spokeswoman with the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “The idea we have in our mind is often incorrect. Those assumptions can really protect people who offend from being held accountable because they don’t look like what people expect.”
But Palumbo also said there can be a downside to identifying sexual predators, which — perhaps surprisingly — has some people rethinking the value of tools like sexual predator registries that many states operate. Palumbo said identification of predators can sometimes make it more difficult for those individuals to lead productive lives once they have served their sentences.
“If they aren’t able to get work again or live in a nice, safe community, they aren’t just going to go away,” Palumbo said. “They may become more likely to re-offend because they don’t have resources.”
Because of issues like those, Palumbo said she doesn’t believe there is a consensus among her prevention colleagues about how communities should be made aware of predators.
The issue is seemingly more clear cut with advocates for open government. Marshall said agencies that don’t release booking photos are making the justice system less transparent.
“We have a strong history and tradition in the United States of not conducting our criminal justice system in secret,” Marshall said. “We believe very strongly that the criminal justice system should be transparent, and the arrest and the booking photo are part of that process.”
Online offender registry
Eventually, people will get to see a photo of convicted sex offender James M. Fletcher.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office declined to release Fletcher’s booking photo after Fletcher was convicted last month on multiple counts of aggravated indecent liberties with a child.
State law, though, eventually will require Fletcher to register as a sexual offender on an online registry maintained by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. However, the timing of when Fletcher must register is unclear. The timing of registration varies in cases based on sentencing, judges’ orders and other factors.
The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office is declining to release Fletcher’s booking photo to the media because it believes the photo could help identify the victim of his crime. But Sgt. Kristen Channel, a spokeswoman with the office, said the sheriff does not plan to object to Fletcher’s photo being placed on the registry. She said the office believes since the photo is not running in conjunction with a news article listing details of the crime that the photo is less likely to aid in the identification of a victim.
People can log onto the KBI public offender registry at kbi.ks.gov/registeredoffender/
Pick and choose
Marshall, though, said one of the more pragmatic reasons for releasing booking photos is they can empower the community to help solve other crimes.
“If someone is convicted of something, it is important to see who that person is because the public may be able to provide additional information to law enforcement about that person and other incidents,” Marshall said.
That may be particularly true with sexual predators. Reliable data on how many victims a sexual predator has on average is difficult to find. But what is widely agreed upon is most sex crimes go unreported.
Channel acknowledged that the release of booking photos can lead to valuable information from members of the public who see them. That is one reason why the office does release booking photos in some instances.
But that policy results in some convicted Douglas County sex offenders having their photos released to the public, while others are shielded from such a release. The sheriff’s office often provides no explanation for its decision, which can make it difficult to discern why one offender has his picture spread publicly and others don’t.
Within the last 30 days, for instance, the department treated booking photos differently for two convicted sex offenders. The office declined to release the booking photo for James M. Fletcher, 35, Lawrence, who was convicted of multiple counts of aggravated indecent liberties with a child. The office however did release the booking photo of Edwin E. Wasson, 54, Baldwin City, who pleaded guilty to raping two children over a period of years.
Both cases seemingly could lend themselves to readers irresponsibly guessing about the victims’ identities, as information about the age, gender and other such details were available about the victims in both cases.
Channel offered few details about why the department releases some photos and not others, or the process the office uses for makings its decisions.
“What people need to know is each case is different,” Channel said via email. “The details of each case are different.”