What it's like working in the King County sex offender unit

KING COUNTY -- Detective Wendy Billingsley has been with the King County Sex Offender Unit for almost nine years. Her job is multi-faceted and involves everything from community notifications and address verification to researching offenders. “We’ll conduct risk assessments of sex offenders which means that we’re looking to figure out whether they pose a threat to the community at large.” A ranking is given according to the offender’s threat level, she said. “(Level) 1 being the lowest risk to re-offend or be a risk to the general public, Level 2 being a moderate and Level 3 being the highest risk to the community-at-large,” Billingsley said. She said that it takes a lot to be labeled a Level 3 offender. “What a person was convicted of has nothing to do with what risk level they are. You could be convicted of one of our most serious felonies -- rape of a child in the first degree -- but if it was within your known victim pool and not against a stranger and it was your only crime, you’re likely going to be classified as a low risk or a moderate. So you’ll be a Level 1 or Level 2.” According to Billingsley, that’s the most common type of offender. “The vast majority of sex offenders will offend against people that they know.” And because Level 1s are often not seen as a threat to anyone outside of their home, the community goes uninformed. “We are only allowed, by state law, to pro-actively solicit the public’s attention for moderate and high risk offenders,” she said. King County has about 4,000 registered sex offenders and only three detectives inside this unit, but Billingsley says despite her workload, she is able to make a difference. “I get to take an active hand in keeping people safe. Educating children and adults and, believe it or not, working with the offender on a one-to-one basis,” she said. Often, sex offenders lose their job, friends and housing so it’s the one-on-one time that the detective said can make all the difference. “When these pressures are on the offender that makes them more of a risk to re-offend. So, the good part about my job is that when I have to see the offender and if I see they’re struggling, if I can channel the appropriate sources to help them and we relieve  that stress, we’re actually making the community safer.” But she knows that she can’t help or change everyone and that in itself creates a unique stress that comes with being a part of this particular unit. "We think about it constantly when we’re at home, you don’t get away from it ever, and then you’ll see a case on the news and the first thing you think is, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope it’s not in my county.’ It sounds horrible, but you’re worried that on your watch somebody slipped through the cracks, that somebody you were responsible made another mistake and you didn’t intervene or you didn’t know.”