On the desktop of Investigator Eric Fields’ computer, the faces of Morgan County’s new Special Victims Unit members are superimposed over those of the stars of the TV show “Law & Order: SVU.” It’s a light-hearted nod to the inevitable comparison.
Fields and his coworkers, Sgt. Pete Taylor and sex offender-compliance coordinator Cindy Crowell, try to create moments of levity and bonding in a stressful and often disturbing environment.
“Some of these crimes, man, are just really horrible — the things done to children and women,” Taylor said.
Morgan County Sheriff Ana Franklin last month formally announced the formation of the specialized unit that is dedicated to investigating sexual and child-abuse cases and monitoring sex offenders. But the unit has been handling cases since early this year, and already is showing some results.
Franklin, who focused on such cases when she was an investigator with the department, said she has wanted more emphasis and manpower on what she sees as a growing problem.
“You go in there and you think, ‘How many can you have? One a month, maybe?’ And it’s one a day,” Franklin said.
People are more likely to report such crimes than in the past, the sheriff said.
“With shows like ‘SVU’ and celebrities coming out and talking about what happened to them, and statistics that one in six young boys will be molested and almost half of young girls may be molested, people are much more apt to talk about it,” Franklin said. “But at the same time, with the Internet, the contact with people who have these types of perversions is so widespread that I think that sort of activity has increased. We never used to have child pornography, and now we see it all the time.”
In the first 11 months this year, the Special Victims Unit worked 32 cases of child abuse, sodomy, sexual abuse and rape, 22 sex offender registration violations and 45 other cases, such as drug-endangered child or domestic violence offenses. Closure rates in rape and sexual abuse cases are up, while closures in child abuse and sodomy are at lower but comparable levels to 2011, according to the Criminal Investigation Division.
Susan Goggins, executive director of the Morgan County Child Advocacy Center, called the unit “a dream come true for the Child Advocacy Center.”
The unit is the only one of its kind in the county, she said.
A few years ago, the Decatur Police Department merged its Special Victims Unit, which was receiving cases only sporadically, with the overworked Robbery/Homicide Unit in an effort to balance case loads, police spokesman Lt. John Crouch said. However, monitoring sex offenders was not one of DPD’s functions at the time, and that task now falls to a different unit.
Morgan County SVU, a subdivision of CID, is led by Taylor, a veteran detective with experience investigating crimes involving children.
“He’s got great personal skills and is very methodical,” Franklin said. “He’s very good with victims and witnesses and getting their accounts and pulling details out of them. Pete’s very patient, and it takes that kind of a person to work these cases.”
Paired with him is the younger Fields, whom Franklin described as “passionate” and “a bulldog.”
“He and Pete made a really good team,” she said.
Fields, who spent more than six years in patrol before moving to investigations, said friends encouraged him not to go into sex crimes because of the stress involved, but he felt building up the unit was important for the county.
“If my child was in need, I’d want to know that if I’m retired or not working here anymore, that my child would have the best we had to offer,” Fields said. “When I go, I want this to go on.”
Changes to the state’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act this year made the decision to form the three-person squad a timely one, Franklin said.
The law now requires sex offenders to register with authorities quarterly rather than biannually, putting a burden on Crowell, who tracks the county’s 307 known sex offenders. Crowell keeps up with a database of offenders, sends out community notifications when offenders move, and updates the sheriff’s sex offender website with data on the more than 150 offenders in the county.
“It has doubled my workload,” she said.
“It’s wonderful having all of us working as a team,” Crowell said.
Investigating sex crimes requires a strong stomach and a cool head, Taylor said.
One of the reasons DPD merged its SVU was to put the difficult cases on a larger pool of detectives to avoid burnout.
“Sometimes we get video accounts of what goes on. In those cases, especially if it involves infants or small children, it can be very difficult to watch,” Taylor said.
“... You have to focus on the good you’re doing when you’re on the job and try to divorce yourself from it when you’re at home and try to focus on enjoying a normal family life and think of that as a blessing — be glad that you don’t have that going on with your family.”
Remaining mild-mannered in interviews with suspects is important — offenders often want to unburden their consciences, Taylor said.
“Confessions are very highly sought after, because we want to convict the right person,” he said. “Nothing’s worse than convicting someone who didn’t do this.”
It’s easy to feel anger toward a child’s abuser, Fields said.
“You have to put your emotions aside for the victim,” he said. “If you were to lose your temper (in an interview), you can blow your whole case and the victim may never see justice.
“When you put the case together piece by piece and go to trial and get a guilty verdict, and you know that this guy isn’t going to be able to be around this child anymore, that’s a great feeling.”
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