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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Sex offender supervisors add mobility

Jeff Hawkins, left, and Scott Burkart, both Department of Corrections officers, patrol several parks in and around downtown as well as STA Plaza to make sure registered sex offenders who are restricted from parks stay out of those areas. 
 (Kathryn Stevens / The Spokesman-Review)
Yuxing Zheng Staff writer

Their jobs used to end where the streets ended, but that all changed in July.

For Scott Burkart and Jeff Hawkins, two Department of Corrections officers, supervising released sex offenders and other parolees used to mean scheduled visits in homes and offices.

But starting in July, the two began patrolling on bicycles. Once a week, they bike through downtown streets, People’s Park, Browne’s Addition and area parks looking for offenders they supervise and establishing street contacts. The new patrol method provides the officers extra mobility in tracking released offenders, especially transient ones they rarely saw outside the office.

Biking also gives officers a greater presence in parks and on trails they could never previously patrol. They’re hoping this visibility will deter offenders from violating the terms of their probation, which can prohibit them from visiting parks or other places popular with children.

“If people know we’re going around the parks on bikes … then maybe they’re less likely to go there in the first place,” Hawkins said. “It isn’t so much how many people we arrest. It’s how many people we can keep track of and discourage.”

Before the bike patrols, officers had to rely on park employees to report sex offenders violating park prohibitions. Now, the officers can enforce those restrictions themselves when they bike through High Bridge, Riverfront and Coeur d’Alene parks.

The bicycles also allow easier navigation through downtown’s one-way streets. If they spotted a contact while driving, they would often have to drive two blocks up and then circle around the block to find the person again – if he was still there, Burkart said.

“You’ve seen what we can do with a vehicle, and it’s not a whole lot because you have to go with the flow of traffic,” he said.

There are about 1,400 registered sex offenders in Spokane County, and about 250 of them are actively supervised by the Department of Corrections, said Todd Wiggs, community corrections supervisor.

Downtown and Browne’s Addition have the highest concentrations of sex offenders and transients in the city, Burkart said. Hawkins and Burkart’s caseload includes about 40 sex offenders with registered addresses in those neighborhoods.

While on patrol, the two talk with the people they supervise. Sometimes they run into friends and significant others of the offenders. It’s a way to find out who is associated with whom on the streets, Burkart said.

The two also carry a Palm Pilot containing names and color photos. When they do find sex offenders violating the terms of their probation, Hawkins and Burkart can arrest them. But in the two instances this summer when they could have arrested people, the officers turned them over to police officers to handle.

“We’re not in the business of locking people up,” Hawkins said. “We’re trying to get the people on a pathway so that when they’re done with supervision, they can be law-abiding citizens. We’re trying to reduce recidivism.”

The bicycle patrols aren’t a new idea. The Spokane Police Department began using them for the same areas about 10 years ago, said Ron Erickson, a sergeant in charge of the department’s bike patrol. Two officers bike around every day April through October with 15 officers rotating through the patrol each year.

“In the downtown congested areas, bike patrols can actually get around faster than cars can,” Erickson said. “They can cover a lot more space than foot officers can, but you still get the contact.”

In fact, Hawkins and Burkart started developing their own bike patrol program last summer after watching the Police Department’s. This year’s pilot rides will end in October, but both officers hope to make it a regular part of patrols April through October of each year.

“We just ride around,” Hawkins said. “It’s kind of like fishing. We run around, see where people hang out.”