The Oklahoma City Police Department pulled off a social media coup on July 7. “Meet the top 10 most wanted individuals being sought by our Sex Offender Registration Unit,” the department posted on its Facebook page. “It’s important we keep tabs on these guys (and gal), so help us find them.” The post engaged a huge number of readers, receiving 1,500 shares and nearly 500 comments.

Told dangerous people were loose on city streets, readers responded. “[She] works at [a local store] I’m fucking sick!” posted one. Shadowproof is withholding this individual’s name and place of work to protect them from retaliation.

Others had their own solutions: “If I spot any I’ll send you the parts.” “Should just chalk these guys up as losses. Let the people deal some justice.” “Take them out back and shoot them.”

The department hasn’t clearly explained how it chose its top 10. At least six were convicted of a sexual crime that happened 10 or more years ago and haven’t been convicted of a new one, according to state information. Their names are published in the state’s sex-offense registry, alongside their photos, personal and workplace addresses, and other information.

No one on the “top 10 most wanted” list was accused of a repeat sexual crime, it appears. Instead, the department had warrants out for them because they had failed to show up in person to update their information on the registry, department spokesperson Megan Morgan wrote in an email. (She wasn’t sure whether any had warrants out for any other offense.)

It is not uncommon for police departments around the country to conduct registry sweeps like this one, looking for registrants whose paperwork is out of compliance.

This summer in Utah, federal, state, and local law enforcement conducted what a spokesperson said may have been the state’s largest registry compliance operation ever, arresting 33 people. 

The logic behind these operations is simple: registrants who don’t update their information pose an imminent threat. But there’s no evidence to support that logic, and law enforcement may have other purposes in mind.

All but one of those targeted in the Oklahoma City sweep appears to have been homeless at the time of the social media post. Four are listed on the state’s registry as “transient.” Five others have addresses in commercial or industrial zones where there are no homes, according to the address data on the department’s Facebook post and the registry. The tenth is listed as “address unknown.” 

Morgan said she wasn’t sure how many were transient and that she’d be relying on the same information as this reporter to determine the answer. 

State policy may well have forced them into homelessness. In 2006, Oklahoma enacted a law barring registrants from living within 2,000 feet of a school or daycare. As a result, 84 percent of the city’s housing was off limits, with the little that remained located in industrial areas with no homes, according to a 2007 Human Rights Watch report. 

Several studies, including one conducted last year in South Carolina, have found a tight link between expansive bans on where registrants can live and higher rates of homelessness. In Oklahoma nearly 200 people dropped off the state registry after the law’s passage. 

“If a man is in prison for a sex-offense and doesn’t have somebody help him once he gets out, he’s very apt to end up sleeping under a bridge somewhere,” said “David,” who lives in an RV near Tulsa and doesn’t want his real name used for fear of retaliation.

For people whose lives are in chaos because of homelessness, it’s easy to make a mistake. State rules almost guarantee mistakes will happen.

Homeless registrants are required to report in person to local law enforcement every seven days to update the location where they’re camped. A 2010 Minnesota study concluded that not updating registration is the most common reason those on sex-offense registries return to prison.

In some Oklahoma counties, the law enforcement bureaucracy itself may make it tough to comply. David is required to register four times a year—missing the deadline subjects him to the possibility of five years in prison and/or a $5,000 fine. 

The state’s Department of Corrections was supposed to send David an address verification form at least 10 days before his registration deadline, which he completes and brings with him in person to his local sheriff’s office, which in turn forwards it to the state. When he called the sheriff’s office where he registers to tell them he hadn’t received his form, the person on the phone told him not to come in until October 23—13 days after his deadline.

“I feel helpless,” David added. He fears cops in another jurisdiction, who don’t know he’s trying to comply, could arrest him.

Locked Up Over Failure To Do Paperwork

Filling jails and prisons with people for failing to do paperwork seems like a particularly bad move as more than 242,000 people behind bars have been infected with the coronavirus and at least 1,400 inmates and corrections officers have died, according to the New York Times. 

Those include sixty-year-old New Yorker Hector Rodriguez, a homeless ex-offender sent to Rikers Island on March 4 for failing to register. He died of COVID-19 on June 21. His crime dated to 1979. 

In Colorado in early March, 78-year-old Charlie Peterson was arrested for failing to register and was subsequently incarcerated in the Weld County Jail. He died three weeks later of health complications apparently caused by COVID-19. 

In January, 51-year-old Charles Hobbs was arrested in Florida for failing to register. He was held in the Miami-Dade jail and died of the coronavirus at the end of April, becoming the first in the jail to die of the illness and likely infecting others.

None of that has deterred cops from continuing to lock up registrants around the country for missing registration deadlines. Stories of those arrests spill across local news sites every week.

There’s almost no evidence the interlocking policies that led Oklahoma City cops to arrest homeless people make anyone safer. Studies in three states between 2009 and 2012, “failed to find any significant differences in recidivism between registration-compliant and noncompliant sex offenders,” notes a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Justice summarizing the research on those convicted of past sexual crimes. 

A 2006 study in Washington State found that those who failed to register had a felony sex crime conviction recidivism rate of 4.3 percent compared with 2.8 percent for those whose registration papers were in order. “It is unknown whether this difference was statistically significant,” according to the Justice Department.

The data on residency restrictions like Oklahoma’s 2,000-foot ban are even more conclusive. The DOJ examined the impact of residency bans since 2004.

“In summary, there is no empirical support for the effectiveness of residence restrictions,” the report concluded. 

If anything, the restrictions make communities more dangerous: “In fact, a number of negative unintended consequences have been empirically identified, including loss of housing, loss of support systems and financial hardship that may aggravate rather than mitigate offender risk,” according to the report.

But all of this might miss the point of these roundups.

At an August press conference about the Utah sweep, U.S. Marshal Matt Harris, an appointee of President Donald Trump, said the operation “gives confidence to the moms and dads out there, knowing that at the start of the school year, and even when some in our nation are looking down on our profession, that we continue to protect and serve, and we will keep your children safe.” 

U.S. Attorney John Huber, an appointee of President Barack Obama, added that “this extensive, expensive operation brings into focus how ludicrous the demands and chants of the activists are. This type of operation shows how ridiculous the demands are to defund the police, to defund law enforcement. Who will protect our children in such a bizarre counter-universe?” 

In August, for a story about “hidden sex offenders” that ran on a Missouri TV station, police sergeant James Brown said, “If someone gets a Facebook page and doesn’t register that with me, then that’s a felony.”

“Since I took this position two-and-a-half years ago, I have probably arrested 30-to-40 sex offenders for failure to register,” Brown added.

Keeping fear at a low boil helps gin up more support for cops, and not many registrants push back.

Keeping Fear At A Low Boil

Most registrants are just trying to stay off the radar since vigilantes regularly target them and their families.

“Registrants, like victims, don’t feel they have much of a voice, so very few have the courage to speak up and tell their stories,” writes Jeff Miller, a Utah registrant who was one of the targets of a similar compliance sweep in 2017, by email.

Back in Oklahoma, David says that “sex offenders are an easy pick-on because they don’t fight back.” 

It helps that mainstream media often serve as willing partners in framing registration violations as imminent threats. In September, NPR ran a story about law enforcement “losing track of sex offenders” during the pandemic.

“When authorities don’t aggressively pursue sex offenders who flee, they often move undetected, sometimes across state lines, and commit additional sex crimes,” the reporter noted, offering no data to support the claim.

In March, People Magazine reporter Tomás Mier wrote about Kenneth Petty, husband of rapper Nicki Minaj, who’d been arrested for not updating his registration information after moving from New York to California. He was convicted of attempted rape 25 years ago when he was age 15, served four years in prison, and is required to be on the California sex-offender registry for life. If convicted of forgetting to report to the cops in California, he faces up to ten years in prison

Mier used the New York State registry’s language about Petty—as a level 2 registrant, he’s a “moderate” risk to reoffend. But that term needs context: the most definitive synthesis of 21 studies, done in 2014, found that among almost 8,000 ex-offenders, 12 percent reoffended over the course of 15 years.

Among moderate-risk ex-offenders, the figure was 2 percent, the same as the risk in ex-offenders with no sexual crime at all in their past. 

Law enforcement might not get a pass on compliance sweeps for much longer. A few grassroots groups pushed back on Oklahoma City’s social media post. Lori Hamilton, a private investigator who coordinates the group OK Voices, put up a number of comments on the page to correct misinformation.

The National Association for Rational Sex Offender Laws, a nonprofit advocacy group, issued a press release that argued the post “incites mob rule and vigilantism” and demanded it be taken down.

In a 2010 study, a group of top experts on sexual recidivism confirmed what other research was showing: failure to register didn’t predict recidivism.

Those results led them to recommend a reform that would not waste taxpayer dollars.

“In light of the data indicating that a relatively small number of sex offenders fail to comply with registration, and those who do are not apt to reoffend sexually, we suggest that resources might be better allocated to helping sex offenders reintegrate successfully,”  they wrote. “Provisions for stable and meaningful employment, housing, and family support, rather than the dominant model of punitive and surveillance-based supervision, might contribute more beneficially to public safety.”

Steven Yoder

Steven Yoder

Steven Yoder is a journalist based in upstate New York. He’s reported on criminal justice and other domestic policy issues for The Washington Post, pbs.org, The American Prospect, Pacific Standard Magazine.com, Al Jazeera America, and others.