Police monitor Santa's village for registered sex offenders

Linda Strowbridge, Owings Mills Times

Plain clothes officers from the Baltimore County Police Department are wandering among the holiday crowds at shopping centers this month, searching for a hazard that might be lurking near Santa's village, food courts or stores. Specifically, the officers are looking for registered sex offenders who have been prohibited from being near children.

The operation "seemed like a chance to find out if registered sex offenders are using the holidays as an opportunity to be around children when they shouldn't," said Bill Toohey, a police spokesman. "Just being in a place with kids might not be a violation. But if they're circling and watching, that could be."

Toohey declined to comment on the number of officers assigned to the detail or the project's budget. The initiative was funded through a $110,000 grant from the state Sex Offenders Compliance Enforcement in Maryland program, called SOCEM by law enforcement officials.

About 570 registered sex offenders live in Baltimore County. More than two-thirds are child sex offenders. So far this year, Baltimore County police have issued warrants on 40 sex offenders for either failing to sign onto the sex offender registry or failing to notify officials that they had moved.

"We don't know what we'll find" over the holidays, Toohey said.The county has not detected problems with sex offenders casing holiday crowds previously, he said.

Neither Baltimore County nor any other Maryland jurisdiction has previously sent undercover officers to watch for sex offenders in those crowds, said Elizabeth Bartholomew, a spokeswoman for Maryland's Division of Probation and Parole. The agency is working with Baltimore County police in piloting the surveillance program.

"I think Baltimore County will be a trendsetter in this area," she said. "They're trying to aid (offenders') attempts to become law-abiding citizens."

The division has already sent letters to local child sex offenders, alerting them to the surveillance program and reminding them to stay away from malls during high-traffic hours and to stay away from places where children might gather, such as food courts, game rooms and Santa displays, Bartholomew said. Full Story [Ed: Too loopy even to comment upon except to say that, it's great that the police have such prodigious resources that they're able to take care of real threats and do this too! (but oh, what a dangerous assignment!) ]

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