'We turn over every stone we possibly can because we are responsible for these people' - meet the team protecting Staffordshire from convicted sexual offenders
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When somebody is convicted of committing a sexual offence, a team of experts at Staffordshire Police swing into action to protect communities from further incidents.
Under the umbrella of the Sexual Offender Management Unit (SOMU), 26 members of staff work tirelessly behind the scenes to decide who of those convicted is considered at risk of re-offending and constantly evolving their investigative tactics to thwart them.
“Many people do not understand the background and pro-active work that goes into the management of registered sex offenders,” said Police Constable Kate Parker, one of SOMU’s Risk Assessors who manage registered sex offenders out in the community.
“Not only do we manage their compliance with the register but we also ‘prevent’ and ‘detect’ many more sexual offences from taking place. We often stop them in their tracks in the ‘planning’ or ‘grooming’ stages.”
Their remit is wide ranging and they can do everything a regular police officer does including making the arrests and compiling the cases for court appearances.
DS James Hargreaves and PC Kate Parker, from the SOMU team
Convictions and sentencings range from cautions to severe jail terms, with offenders being placed on the sex offender register and being made to comply with many requirements by law. Failure to do so means they are robustly dealt with and placed back before the courts in most instances.
SOMU will handle them until their sex offender registration expires, or a sexual prevention order has been put in place by a court to keep them on SOMU’s radar for a longer period of time. The length of sentence received dictates whether that person is managed for two, five, seven or 10 years - or for life. The majority get one of the final two options.
If somebody is put on the register for life, they can apply to be removed 15 years after they are released from prison. SOMU will review the application and their behaviour to provide key information to a panel of professionals who discuss whether they would support the application. The final decision is made by a Superintendent.
Statistically, 84% of sex offenders do not go on to re-offend, but the SOMU team’s job is to work out which 16% are the ones that are or planning to - and then to stop them from doing so.
Detective Sergeant James Hargreaves, another of the SOMU team, said: “We visit offenders to assess them and with all the information we gather, we assign them a risk level to the community.
“That determines how they are managed. This can be determined by how open and honest they are with officers. Do the police have to be intrusive into their lives to uncover lies or are they quite open and forthcoming?”
Kate added: “Once we are assigned a case, the first thing we do is a thorough study on what put them on the sex offender register in the first instance. Was there any previous offending prior to conviction? We have to take every part of a sex offender’s life into account in order to protect and safeguard the community.
“We will also work very closely with Probation - some offenders are assigned a probation officer immediately should they not go to prison and we jointly manage them should that be the case. Social Services, housing and schools are also other agencies we work side by side with.
“For the offenders who have received a prison sentence they may be released with strict licence conditions to adhere to. This will be in addition to a sexual harm prevention order (SHPO) which will have more conditions attached.”
When trying to assess if somebody is a threat to the public still, there are many ways SOMU officers make their judgments.
“If the person has previously offended by downloading or viewing images or other offensive and illegal material then our first checks are with all computer equipment and devices.” Kate added.
“Many will have a SHPO with conditions relating to their use and if they show these devices to officers. If people breach these orders they are dealt with robustly and placed back before a court where, on many occasions, a further prison sentence is invoked.
“In addition, we can discover a lot about people’s lives through device checks. Have they any relationships they may have started? We then manage that risk, ie. does the new partner or friend have children? Do they know they are communicating with a convicted sex offender? This is where our safeguarding comes in to play.
“Other cases can be difficult to manage - stranger or random attacks. These clues are hard to pick up on. A trigger may be alcohol or drug misuse and in that case we maintain regular contact with the offender and note any changes in lifestyle or substance misuse which could heighten the risk.”
James added: “You have to try and work out what reasons, if any, they have to deceive us. Some may just have a new partner and are scared to disclose that they are a registered sex offender, but for others it may be that they have a new partner with children and they want to keep it from us because their aim is to groom the partner and. We also check their employment closely - is a particular job appropriate for them given their conviction?”
Kate added: “I can have more respect - if that is the right word - for offenders who realise and admit that they have a sexual interest in something that is wrong. But they recognise this and work with us to put everything in place to prevent any further offending. Those who ask for help and do what is required to never cause harm to an innocent person again are easier to manage.
“The ones who are in denial, and never admit to what they have done are difficult to manage. Then it becomes our job to be one step ahead at all times to stop them re-offending and prevent any more victims.”
And James added: “Some will constantly be looking for ways to re-offend. Our team do the research in the background to try and catch these people. If we can identify somebody is having contact with children who shouldn’t, we can get them sent back to prison for breaching their SHPO prior to them committing any further offences – which is a success.
“But these are the people who will constantly be trying to evolve their tactics. So we have to evolve ours.
“Everyone in the department is driven. We are going out and actively looking to ensure people are not offending. It’s important to recognise that not everyone is going on to commit further offences, but at the same time you can’t take everything somebody says for granted.
“We know exactly what we are dealing with - we deal with dangerous people. You’ve got to have an ability to build a rapport with someone while also watching them. Some people make a mistake and will never offend again. But others want to keep on offending, and any chance we have to take positive action we will do.”
Kate also points to that dedication to protecting the public that makes SOMU’s officers stand out.
“I’m passionate about this and can speak for all of us in SOMU,” she said. “We turn over every stone we possibly can because we are responsible for these people. These crimes are life-changing for victims and our aim is to protect the public.”
SOMU rely on the general public to help them stop offences from happening. If people know a confirmed registered sex offender and have any information about suspicious activities then they can report this online to the team via the Staffordshire Police website.
If people have suspicions about somebody possibly being a registered sex offender they are asked to report those concerns to Staffordshire Police either via the website, via direct message on Facebook or Twitter, or by calling 101.
In an emergency, always dial 999.