Police Chief Richard Buzby said shortcomings with Megan’s Law meant the neighborhood could not be notified. So, he instead told residents using the only public notification left available to him: the Little Egg Harbor Police Facebook page.
“How can I look these people in the face and not give them the basic information to keep them safe?” he said.
Megan’s Law was created to notify neighbors when a known sex offender moves into an area. They are assigned a tier rating based on their likelihood of re-offending. Tier 3 are most likely to re-offend. Tier 1 are least likely. Then, the neighborhood is notified if needed.
However, the suspect has appealed his tier rating, so police were not able to notify the neighborhood when he moved in, police said. Then, he allegedly re-offended at the end of 2016. He was arrested and charged. The prosecutor’s office attempted to keep him in jail. Due to the new bail reform, he was not assigned bail. He was free to go on January 25. The prosecutor has appealed the decision, and applied for an emergency consideration of bail. The state Supreme Court told him to go through the appeal process as normal. However, it could take months to go through an appeal.
“The judge in this case placed the defendant on house arrest until trial and he is being monitored by an electronic bracelet that will alert the court if he steps outside his home. The prosecution appealed that decision and the Appellate Court will review the decision shortly,” said Pete McAleer, spokesman for the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Police were not able to legally release the exact details of the case only that this man lives near families, school bus stops and places where children would frequent. However, until a tier can be established, no notifications can be made.
“It was bad enough when there were offenders in the community that did not re-offend. Now, apparently, we have re-offenders and bail reform has cut them loose,” Buzby said. “People think they’re protected, but they’re not.”
People are under a false sense of security believing that Megan’s Law will do its job, but chiefs have been pushing for reform for years, he said. Additionally, the bail reform that was instituted this year somehow rated him as a low threat.
“The reforms might have benefits, but the implementation was not thought out,” he said. “It is erasing protections that vulnerable groups have come to rely on.”
He warned parents to be careful regarding their children’s whereabouts.
“If the police chief and the prosecutor can’t fight for these kids, who can?” he said. “With all due respect, this can’t be right.”
Changing Megan’s Law
There is one major flaw with Megan’s Law, officials said. A suspect is put on a tier after they are released. Therefore, they can potentially re-offend before local police can even warn residents that the offender is in their neighborhood. This is because the offender’s residency is a factor in what tier they are placed.
“It gives residents nothing in terms of protection while we wait. It’s been an utter failure for that reason,” Buzby said.
Years ago, legislation was introduced to change this. It was originally started by the late Sen. Leonard Connors (R-9th), but is now promoted by his son, Sen. Christopher Connors (R-9th). The bill would assign offenders a tier before they are released.
“Unfortunately, the bill does not get any traction,” Chris Connors said. There is a companion bill in the state assembly that is also stalled. The bill is in the law and public safety committee on the senate side (S-253), and the judiciary committee on the assembly side (A-1142).
If there is a silver lining to this cloud, it is that this incident might give lawmakers the push they need to pass the bill, he said. Sometimes, a tragedy can show why a law is needed. The comparison he used was a bill that allowed security personnel at nuclear facilities to have automatic weapons. Prior to the bill being passed, they were only allowed to have hand guns with relatively low amounts of bullets. After the attacks on September 11, 2001, the bill passed.
“I fear that this bill follows the same path. Something heinous will happen and it’ll be the best idea and it’s been there the whole time,” he said.
He said he will continue to push for support of this bill with his fellow legislators and with the governor, so that it can be signed when it comes to his desk.
A spokesman with the governor’s office said that they would never comment on legislation until the final bill is on the governor’s desk and they’ve had time to review it.
Notifying on Facebook
People share all kinds of things on Facebook, but it was unusual for the police to warn residents in this manner.
Buzby said he would be allowed to notify people via Facebook because of a provision of Megan’s Law titled “2C:7-10 Notification concerning other dangerous circumstances unaffected.” This brief provision reads the following: “Nothing in this act shall be construed to prevent law enforcement officers from providing community notification concerning any person who poses a danger under circumstances that are not provided for in this act.”
He said the response to his post has been surprising. There were thousands of shares and reactions, and quite a bit of comments.
“I wanted to get it into the hands of the community but it got into the hands of the country,” he said. People from all over America have been commenting and sharing the message. “It resonated in a way I never anticipated.”
Additionally, several police chiefs from all over the state have contacted him, letting them know that they are in the same situation. “They’re trying to do the right thing but are unable to do so,” he said.
However, not all of the responses were positive. Some of them threatened the suspect. Those comments had to be deleted by the police. They have also had to have additional patrols in that neighborhood to protect the suspect, he said.
Chief Buzby “is in a predicament that he can’t warn people. So, if you can’t warn particular people in a particular place (which is what Megan’s Law would allow), then you warn everyone,” Connors said.