The sex offender registry: an invitation for vigilantism
By Steve Yoder . . .
Last July, the Hudson Star Observer in western Wisconsin wrote a story about a man moving into a building in town. His name was Brandon Langel. He was on the state’s sex offender registry for crimes he’d committed in 2008, for which he spent four years in prison. The paper ran the story because now he’d be moving into a building where three other registrants also lived.
The paper interviewed a neighbor who lived right across the street. “It’s really concerning,” said Daniel Steltz, who had a wife and child. “The fact that four convicted sex offenders all live about 25 feet from his family’s doorstep is a chilling one for Steltz,” the reporter noted. Steltz said his family hadn’t experienced any problems with them. But now Steltz said he was exploring selling their home.
Further down in the article, the writer inserted more information about Langel. He was a small man: 5-foot-5 and 152 pounds. A giant photo of him ran at the top of the story.
All of that would seem to be just reporting the facts. But what the writer left out might explain what happened a few months later:
-Wisconsin’s ban on registrants living within 1500 feet of “any school premises, child care facility, public park, place of worship, or youth center.”Restrictions like that crowd ex-offenders into the few places that aren’t off limits—like Langel’s building.
-Data on the risk of re-offense among those convicted of past sexual offenses. It’s lower than nearly all other classes of ex-offender: 5 to 15 percent, and 3 percent for those who’ve been offense free after 10 years, a figure comparable to the risk in the non-offending population. Upwards of 90 percent of new sex crimes are committed by someone not on a registry.
-The evidence that where a registrant lives has nothing to do with where offenses occur. There’s no data indicating that repeat sex crimes are committed near where children congregate. The federal government declared as much in 2015 after reviewing multiple studies.
All of that makes the story of Langel’s move no more newsworthy than the article “Proud Man Fears Way of Life Threatened When Black Family Moves Into Neighborhood” that ran in a 1973 New Jersey paper.
The reporter would likely have been able to include the critical context he missed had he contacted any of the respected state or national experts who’s studied issues involving registrants. As it was, the effect of running the article with the omissions was to let stand the neighbor’s assertion that he had reason to be terrified.
Fear often precedes violence. So fast forward to November 22, four months later. Langel was sleeping in his apartment when another building resident named Brad Couet-Kamrath broke down his door with an ax. Then he attacked Langel, using the blunt end to hit him in the head. Somehow Langel survived. Couet-Kamrath told police he’d tried to kill his neighbor because he was angry about “nothing being done about sex offenders living in his building.”
How many cases like this are out there? It’s hard to say because the connection between news coverage and vigilante violence is difficult to prove and rarely even assessed. But the only definitive studies of vigilantism targeting registrants and their families (here and here) show that for every murder attempt, there are a dozen baleful stares, broken windows or slashed tires, and children bullied at school, and more than a few death threats.
If you know of similar cases in which newspaper reporting led to harassment or worse, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or ping me through the comments section.
P.S. The ever-brilliant Lenore Skenazy passed along a survey that the New York Times Magazine did of almost 3000 of its subscribers. It asked how many of them had ever urinated in public: 42 percent said they had. If they’re from one of 13 states, they’ve committed an offense that makes them eligible for the sex offender registry. You can write to the Times and point that out here.