On February 18th of this year, a man named Byron Williams went to Chicago police headquarters to register as a sex offender, as the law requires. He was turned away because the registration office was too busy that day. Ten days later he was arrested for failing to register.
According to police records reviewed by WBEZ, Chicago police turned away registrants 601 times in just the first three months of this year. It’s an issue WBEZ has been reporting on and you can read our previous stories here and here.
Back to Byron Williams, I met him in mid-February outside police headquarters where he was nervously waiting to get into the criminal registration office to register as a sex offender. I had spent several days in the line reporting on the strange process people in Chicago have to navigate as they try to register. They spend hours in line at CPD headquarters and then are regularly turned away because police are too busy.
“This is like my seventh or eighth day coming trying to register, and each day I come, and then they cut the line off and tell us you got to come back another day and I work every day and I can’t make it here early in the morning,” said Williams, as he shifted back and forth on his feet trying to stay warm (This was February and the almost exclusively male registrants had waited outside for hours and hours).
Williams told me he worked as a security guard from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, which made it impossible to get to the registration office.
“They don’t do it on the weekends so you can’t come on the weekends, and I actually just changed my work schedule, I switched it just so I can be able to make sure I make my registration, but I still can’t register!”
One day, when I waited with sex offenders trying to register, an officer came out and told everyone to line up against the wall. I moved to the wall along with the rest of the group. The officer told the men that the police wouldn’t be able to register them. I asked her what the issue was. Angrily, she said she didn’t have time to explain it to me.
She wrote down the names of the men who were in line on a criminal registration log but she told them they could still be arrested. After writing down a few names she looked at me apologetically, and seemingly exasperated, perhaps overworked, she told me that the office was at capacity and that’s why everyone would have to come back another day.
WBEZ has reviewed the criminal registration logs kept by police and found the department turned men away 601 times in the first three months of this year. It means the police don’t know where the sex offenders are until they come back to register, if they bother coming back at all.
Williams says his boss allowed him to switch shifts with someone else so he could register, but he says he keeps getting turned away, “and my boss is like okay you need to make something happen but everytime I get up to close by they cut it off and say we can’t register, you got to come back the next day. I’m explaining that to my boss, but he’s understanding but he’s not understanding and I’m like at risk of losing my job and you know how hard it is for a sex offender to find a job? Are you kidding me?” said Williams.
Police records show that Williams was at the registry office on February 18th and 19th and turned away both days. On February 23rd the sticker on his license plate expired. On February 28th he was pulled over by police because of the expired sticker. (He also had a cover on his license plate obscuring it and was driving on a suspended driver’s license.)
Police ran his name. According to the arrest report the name check revealed that Williams was quote, “a registered sex offender who was overdue in registering.” Since then Williams has been in the Cook County Jail, where it costs taxpayers $52,000 a year to house each inmate.
“What are they expected to do? Come back the next day and stand in line again? People can’t go every day of their life and await the same fate!” said Herb Goldberg, the attorney representing Williams in his case. He says Williams is looking at a long sentence.
“He’s basically facing possibly six years to thirty years for failing to register in a situation where, I believe, he did make valid three attempts to register and was turned away,” said Goldberg. “And filling the penitentiary up with more people for these types of violations isn’t doing anybody any good.”
For months, WBEZ has been seeking an interview with Police Supt. Garry McCarthy to discuss the issues with the criminal registration office. For months McCarthy has refused, and there’s been no explanation as to why the media-savvy police chief can’t discuss this with WBEZ. In an emailed statement CPD spokesman Adam Collins says the department is planning an expansion of the criminal registration office and construction should be done by August, which should increase efficiency. We’d like to talk to McCarthy about that as well, but he continues to refuse.