Officers and Child-Sex Offenders
Operational Safety Considerations
By Joy L. Shelton, Tia A. Hoffer, Ph.D., and Charles Joyner, M.A.
An offender arrived home from walking his dog to find law enforcement officers executing a search. The investigators gave him a copy of the search warrant affidavit, which showed the items for seizure, including any evidence of child pornography. He also learned that he was under arrest for Internet-related violations. The offender asked the officers if he could secure his dog in the house prior to his transport to the police station for processing. After placing his dog inside, he quickly retrieved a firearm hidden in the residence and shot himself while the investigators stood nearby.
Officers commonly execute search and arrest warrants on offenders who have committed various state or federal crimes. However, for some child-sex offenders (CSO), this is the first time they have been the focus of an investigation. The dynamic interplay between investigators and CSOs is a complex dance impacted by many variables, such as the specific type of crime, the offender’s background and personality, and the officers’ perception and preparation. Also, the unique responses of investigators and CSOs can change this interaction. Due to this life-changing event, the impact on CSOs can result in a violent response to authorities.
Typically, investigators feel stress prior to and during incidents, such as arrests or searches, but quickly relax once the incident appears under control. They often have trained for such situations. On the contrary, CSOs—usually unprepared and overwhelmed—may be at ease before becoming aware of a pending investigation. However, once officers identify themselves and their purpose, CSOs most likely will react to the stress physiologically and cognitively as they consider the consequences of arrest. This inverse relationship impacts the dynamics between investigators and offenders, as well as the potential outcome. As a result, CSOs’ stress levels could escalate, perhaps, to the point at which they formulate a plan to avoid capture (e.g., by escaping, attempting suicide, or harming an officer).
The result of a violent altercation may come down to a final question: Who has a greater will to live and more commitment to action for survival? CSOs likely will consider—as influenced by their mental state and capacity to weigh the impact of potential actions—a number of factors in a decision to act out. These may include the number of officers responding to the scene; prior experience, skills, or abilities of the investigators and the offender; and the CSO’s access to weapons.
CSOs who commit Internet-related child-sex crimes often appear less dangerous because they typically are older Caucasian males with little to no criminal history or documented reports of violent behavior.1 However, due to the stigmatizing and embarrassing nature of the violation, these individuals may pose a risk to themselves and others. When CSOs face the probability that their lives will be destroyed, they likely will experience anxiety, shame, or desperation resulting from the ultimate loss of identity or reputation.2 In addition, they may not be familiar with the criminal justice system, except for depictions of it through the media. These individuals may perceive any contact with law enforcement as unacceptable and potentially intolerable.
Suicidal CSOs may not care about taking another person’s life through self-destructive or violent behavior. Often, they want to escape or avoid dying alone and engage in behaviors that threaten the lives of others. Although murder-suicide and suicide-by-cop scenarios do not occur often, officers should remain aware of these possibilities when executing search and arrest warrants.
Investigators evaluate the degree of danger, along with life-and-death matters, in every situation they approach. However, after several years of service, some officers may become complacent, particularly, on occasions where they perceive that an offender presents a low risk. Even among the broader group of CSOs, investigators may see a perpetrator who has committed Internet-related child-sex crimes as less dangerous than CSOs who commit hands-on offenses. As a result, officers may let their guard down by, for instance, failing to wear protective vests during the execution of search warrants or “knock and talks”; allowing CSOs to walk around their residences while investigators conduct a search; neglecting to check a CSO’s home thoroughly for potential dangers, such as firearms; or permitting CSOs to do certain things, such as use the restroom, or, like in the case example, put a dog away.
Ms. Shelton is a crime analyst in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit III – Crimes Against Children, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.
Special Agent Hoffer serves in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit III – Crimes Against Children, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime.
Mr. Joyner, a retired FBI special agent, is founder and president of a private consulting firm specializing in assistance to law enforcement on use-of-force issues.
The authors offer suggestions for officers to consider. These focus on interactions, including knock and talks and search and arrest warrants, that investigators may have with CSOs.3 However, some of the more dangerous reported incidents have occurred when officers attempted to contact CSOs who did not appear for a court hearing or other mandated legal proceeding. The potential for CSOs to act out violently during an interaction with officers demands consideration in every case and at each phase in the legal process (e.g., awareness, arrest, detention, release, indictment, preliminary hearing, trial, plea agreement, sentencing, and incarceration).4
Before Contact with a CSO
- Prepare search or arrest team members for the CSO’s state of mind.
- Brief the team on the plan, along with any contingencies.
- Stress the importance of safety gear, such as body armor.
- Use the Situation, Missions, Execution, Administration, and Communication model (SMEAC) to organize the search or arrest plan.
- Employ a best-practices approach when interacting with a CSO to prepare for and prevent violence.
- Conduct surveillance and other techniques to obtain information about the CSO.
- Plan for how the approach and tactical response will impact the interview and balance with safety concerns.
- Consider what themes to use if CSOs respond negatively and the team must negotiate with them.
- Consider if, or when, a SWAT or crisis negotiation team would be requested.
- Discuss and plan for seizing weapons for both the CSO’s and officers’ safety—when team members return to make an arrest, the CSO may be prepared.
During Interaction with a CSO
- Conduct an initial evaluation of the CSO’s reaction to investigators.
- Attempt to slow the process—keeping it calm and controlled—to decrease the stress of the offender and officers and increase rational decision making.
- Safely exercise appropriate physical control over the CSO, consistent with the law and the agency’s restraint policy.
- Build rapport with CSOs by treating them with respect, thus encouraging them to cooperate with the interview and share information that could highlight potential risk factors or stressors.
- Continue to evaluate stress levels for increased elevations throughout the period of contact or as long as law enforcement remains present.
- Ask CSOs how they will be impacted; observe their reactions and responses.
- Do not allow offenders to roam freely.
- If officers allow CSOs to leave during a search, one investigator must ensure that they do not return and surprise the search team.
- Ask CSOs about the presence and location of any firearms.
- If a CSO has access to firearms, secure all weapons by clearing them, emptying the magazines and separating them from the guns, or placing the weapons in a law enforcement officer’s vehicle until the team vacates the premises.
- Ask the offender about prior suicidal thoughts or attempts, as well as details, such as where, when, and what triggered the behavior.
- Ask CSOs directly if they are considering suicide. Asking will not give them the idea—suicidal individuals already have thought about it.
- Obtain contact information for family members or close friends and notify them if the CSO exhibits concerning behaviors or makes remarks that indicate elevated suicide risk.
- Ask CSOs if they see or have seen a mental health professional. Request consent to speak with that individual.
- Coordinate with the prosecuting attorney with respect to what, if any, steps can and should be taken regarding firearms discovered during the execution of a warrant.
- Assess the residence, such as its layout, to address contingencies in the event of an altercation with the CSO if officers need to return to the residence.
After Meeting with a CSO
- If local law enforcement officers are not involved in the operation, inform them of your contact with the offenders and the potential risk of harm by the individuals to themselves or others.
- Conduct a debriefing with the team to discuss any potential issues regarding risk.
“The dynamic interplay between investigators and CSOs is a complex dance impacted by many variables….”
Often, law enforcement officers perceive child-sex offenders as less dangerous and violent than other types of perpetrators. However, the authors argue that these offenders pose considerable risk to themselves and potential danger to investigators.5 The authors advise officers to prepare in advance for interviews with CSOs that address their risk for suicide and to brief their teams on issues related to suicide or violence risk. Additionally, investigators should ask CSOs about past or current suicidal ideations and consider contacting a family member or, if applicable, a therapist if a CSO displays any risk factors. Most important, investigators should treat all CSOs as subjects who could become volatile, suicidal, or dangerous.
The authors welcome readers’ questions and comments at Joy.Shelton@ic.fbi.gov, Tia.Hoffer@ic.fbi.gov, and cjoyner@SurvivalSciences.com.
The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit III – Crimes Against Children, National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC), has published a handbook entitled Operational Safety Considerations While Investigating Child-Sex Offenders: A Handbook for Law Enforcement, Volume 1, which addresses the issues presented in this article more comprehensively. It can be viewed on the BAU III Special Interest Group (SIG) on the Law Enforcement Online (LEO) system; by e-mailing Supervisory Special Agent Tia A. Hoffer at email@example.com or Crime Analyst Joy Lynn E. Shelton at firstname.lastname@example.org; or by calling 703-632-4347. Presentations and training on this topic also are available upon request.
1 M.C. Seto, Pedophilia and Sexual Offending Against Children: Theory, Assessment, and Intervention (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2008).
2 J. Brophy, “Suicide Outside of Prison Settings Among Males Under Investigation for Sex Offenses in Ireland During 1990 to 1999,” The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention 24, no. 4: 155-159; T. Hoffer, J. Shelton, S. Behnke, and P. Erdberg, “Exploring the Impact of Child-Sex Offender Suicide,” The Journal of Family Violence 25, no. 8: 777-786; and K.V. Lanning, Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis (Alexandria, VA: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 1986 and 2010).
3 The authors have developed these recommendations through their investigative experiences with CSOs and discussions with local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies across the country. Officers should review options with their agency’s management and legal counsel.
4 Brophy, “Suicide Outside of Prison Settings Among Males Under Investigation for Sex Offenses.”
5 Hoffer, Shelton, Behnke, and Erdberg, “Exploring the Impact of Child Sex Offender Suicide.”