Helping Law Enforcement Track Child Sex Offenders

By The Partnership for Public Service (Washington Post)
February 19, 2012

When law enforcement authorities need help investigating heinous sex crimes against children or assistance tracking down child sex offenders who have not complied with state registry requirements, they often turn to Michael Bourke.

As chief psychologist for the U.S. Marshals Service Behavioral Analysis Unit, Bourke provides local, state and federal law enforcement officials with critical psychological insights into the minds of sex offenders. This includes providing behavioral profiles to narrow a list of suspects, offering guidance on interrogation techniques, administering polygraph tests and training police officers on how to interview individuals and locate child victims.

"We try to find out as much as we can about an offender by reviewing the records, talking to family and friends and neighbors, and developing behavioral patterns to predict what he might do next, where he might go and what motivates him," said Bourke.

In some instances, Bourke said, his efforts are directed at trying to identify the individual who may have badly abused or killed a child by looking at the way the crime was committed and by searching for other clues that may link known offenders to the crime. He also reviews the videotapes of interrogations of sexual offender suspects, and helps interpret those interviews to assist law enforcement officers build their cases.

"One of the toughest parts is translating the psychological babble and putting it in a format that is helpful to investigators," he said.

Bourke came to the U.S. Marshals Service in 2008 after spending eight years at the Federal Correctional Institution in Butner, N.C., where he worked in the commitment and treatment program for sexually dangerous persons.

This was an intense job, one that put Bourke in personal day-to-day contact with many individuals who committed "morally abhorrent and horrific acts."

Bourke said the experience gave him extraordinary insights into the personalities of violent sex offenders, including their penchant for denial, their justifications and rationalizations, their desire to blame others and not take responsibility for their actions, and in some cases, their shame once the truth had been revealed. Part of his job was helping the sex offenders take responsibility for their deeds.

"I heard just about everything there is to hear," said Bourke. "It can really get to you to hear about these evil acts."

Bourke is an integral part of a broader program at the Marshals Service. Under a 2006 law, the Marshals Service was designated as the lead federal agency responsible for locating fugitive sex offenders who do not comply with state registry requirements.

The law also created the National Sex Offender Targeting Center, a multi-agency organization led by the Marshals Service that supports the identification, investigation, location, apprehension and prosecution of noncompliant, unregistered fugitive sex offenders. There are an estimated 100,000 registered sex offenders in the United States whose whereabouts are unknown. In fiscal 2011, the Marshals Service helped apprehend 12,144 sex offenders, initiated 2,720 investigations, issued 730 warrants for registration violations and arrested 586 fugitives for other violations of the sex offender laws.

Deputy U.S. Marshal Richard Kelly, who works with Bourke on sex offender cases, said his colleague brings unique skills to the job, is dedicated and tireless in his efforts, and provides an important perspectives and insights to frontline investigators.

"He understands the people we are going after and their complex psychological problems, and he understands the law enforcement side," said Kelly. "He wants us to understand the mentality of these people, and give us the information we need to build a case."

Even though the crimes he investigates are horrible, Bourke said, his work is exceptionally "challenging and rewarding."

"Combating the scourge of child exploitation gives me the feeling that I am doing the right thing for the right reasons and that I am making a difference in the lives of children," said Bourke. "I go home at the end of the day, look at my two small kids and know I can tell them, 'Your dad did something good for the community that he was sworn to protect."

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and Go to to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.