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County may shut down sex offender task force

Spokane County sheriff’s Deputy Damon Simmons works through a desk full of paper Wednesday  as a member of the Child Sexual Predator Task Force. Funding for his position runs out in January.  (Christopher Anderson)
Spokane County sheriff’s Deputy Damon Simmons works through a desk full of paper Wednesday as a member of the Child Sexual Predator Task Force. Funding for his position runs out in January. (Christopher Anderson)

Spokane County sheriff’s Deputy Damon Simmons spends much of his time hunting for online sexual predators with the Spokane County Child Sexual Predator Task Force.

But Simmons’ time with the task force may be running out.

The task force, which focuses on finding new online offenders and managing known offenders, was created in 2008 with a nearly $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The money for his position runs out in a few weeks. Faced with budget cuts, it’s a position the department may not be able to keep.

The Sheriff’s Office is the lead agency in the task force, which includes the Spokane County prosecuting attorney, Spokane and Spokane Valley police departments, Washington State Department of Corrections, Partners with Families & Children and others.

The grant paid for Simmons’ training and salary for two years. It expired this October, but the Sheriff’s Office got an extension, which will allow use of funds left over from the first two years of operation to continue funding Simmons’ position until January.

The Sheriff’s Office was able to make the grant stretch because the U.S. Marshals Service chipped in some equipment and overtime pay, but when it runs out, Simmons’ position could be eliminated and he could be back on patrol.

“The position entails a lot, and there’s going to be a lot missing if that position goes away,” Simmons said.

The Sheriff’s Office is trying to figure out how to handle Simmons’ workload if he has to go back on patrol.

“It would be tough to do, and I know they’re addressing that question,” he said.

One possibility: Divvy the duties among patrol officers.

But, Simmons said, “It would be difficult with all the other tasks that patrol has.”

One of his responsibilities is face-to-face address verifications for level 1 sex offenders – he visits their addresses to make sure they really live where they say. The Sheriff’s Office has to check in with each level 1 offender – those considered least likely to become a repeat offender – once a year.

With more than 1,200 level 1 sex offenders in Spokane County, it’s a time-consuming task. But spending some time with each of the offenders and getting to know them helps law enforcement link those who become repeat offenders to new crimes more quickly, Simmons said.

In addition to funding his position, the grant paid for federal training and new technology for him and the task force.

“A lot of the training I received was paid for with the grant – and really good training,” Simmons said. “I’m talking state and federal training, some of the best training I have received as a law enforcement officer.”

In addition to tracking online predators, Simmons has helped catch nearly 40 fugitive offenders, completed about 800 address verifications and collected more than 100 DNA samples for the state which help law enforcement find repeat offenders more quickly.

Simmons also has an education role and has talked about the dangers of sexual predators – especially online predators – at places such as local schools.

“We’re doing more than just going after sex offenders,” said Esther Larsen, project director with the Sheriff’s Office, who applied for the grant.

Lt. Steve Barbieri is drafting a proposal to get more funding from the county’s general fund in a supplemental budget request to save Simmons’ task force position and potential cuts in other investigative units, Barbieri said.

He said keeping positions such as these is increasingly important as more sexual predators move online.

“The … task force is dealing with the predators who are preying on children through the Internet,” he said. “That’s one of the areas we don’t have time to work because it’s labor intensive, but it’s how sex offenders and predators are attempting to contact kids. It’s no longer meeting them in playgrounds, driving down the street to meet them. It’s on the Internet nowadays.”

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