In possible abuse cases, 'Trust the hairs on the back of your neck' | March 28, 2014 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - March 28, 2014

In possible abuse cases, 'Trust the hairs on the back of your neck'

Reporting suspicions is first step in carefully regulated investigation, police say

When something seems odd about a situation involving young children and possible sexual or other abuse, "The best thing anybody could do is trust the hairs on the back of their neck," Palo Alto police Lieutenant Zachary Perron recommends.

Perron, who spent from 2003 to 2008 as the lead investigator of sex crimes involving minors and who currently oversees that area among others in the detective division, said that a person of any age can report situations or actions that seem odd or inappropriate.

"They need to trust that instinct and pick up the phone, or tell an adult and bring it to someone's attention," he said.

"The same thing goes for reporting suspicious activities in our neighborhoods: Trust that initial instinct. Give the police a call and let us have a chance to come out and investigate."

People need not be afraid of a law-enforcement rush-to-judgment against someone, as today's investigative procedures relating to sex-related crimes involving minors are precisely defined and investigators are given special training, he emphasized.

"From personal experience, these are among the most detail-oriented and complex investigations a department can undertake. They are only done by detectives with special training and are not investigations that occur quickly or in a hasty manner. Sometimes it takes several months for an investigation to be finished, not the least of which is doing a proper interview of a child."

Young children can be "very easily led and are suggestible. Interviews need to be done in a very special and open-ended, non-leading way. An entire investigation can be jeopardized by an investigator using even a single wrong word."

Structured interview procedures have been developed for the "unique crime" of sexual abuse of children in conjunction with the district attorney's office, and training is ongoing each year for officers assigned to such cases, he said. Investigations are often coordinated with the Child Protective Services agency of the county.

"Just because somebody calls the police doesn't equate to somebody being investigated for a sex crime. It simply means that officer who's trained to investigate suspicious behavior is going to come out and investigate suspicious behavior. That's all it means," Perron said.

And some reports of possible abuse are legally required: "School administrators, just like cops, are mandated reporters of child abuse — not just sexual but emotional or physical," he said.

Part of the investigation is attempting to get to know the alleged perpetrator.

"There's a big difference between someone who may be a 'child molester' and somebody whom we in law enforcement would call a 'child predator.'"

Perron said they both may have been convicted of an identical crime — sexual contact with a child under 14 — but the difference between them is that a molester is someone whose primary sexual interest is adults.

"A child predator is a completely different person. That is going to be someone whose primary sexual interest is in children. ... That's a very important difference," he said.

The vast majority of registered sexual offenders in California fall under the molester category and are not child sexual predators, he added.

"The challenge for law enforcement and the court system is unless a suspect is going to come forward and confess their deepest, innermost sexual fantasies to you voluntarily, there's no way really to get inside somebody's head to determine which category they fall into."

In one sense it doesn't matter which category fits, as both have committed a sex crime against a child, for which if convicted they should go to prison, he said.

"It helps from an investigation standpoint to know what's going on in that person's head as best you can," Perron said. That is a matter of training and approach, and "not passing judgment on what the act was" during interviews, he said.

Yet prevention and early detection are vitally important in a community.

"I think it's incumbent on all adults to be mindful and protective, because children have a special place in all of our hearts," Perron said.

— Jay Thorwaldson


Posted by @PAFreePress, a resident of South of Midtown
on Mar 31, 2014 at 11:38 am

If your made the subject of any criminal investigation you should answer no questions without the presence of a competent criminal attorney. Police interrogators will not voluntarily provide you with this information to protect your constitutional rights. Furthermore, police are highly skilled and trained at asking a deceptive line of questions designed to build the foundation of criminal charges against you...

We recommend the following reading: Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, By Fred Reid involving techniques of interviewing and interrogating. Remember, their is nothing wrong with exercising your constitutional rights to remain silent. However, you now have to invoke these rights. You can know longer just remain silent as a result of a recent Supreme Court decision in this regard


Posted by Sarah Sherwood, a resident of Walter Hays School
on Mar 31, 2014 at 12:19 pm

An important article!

Posted by muttiallen, a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Mar 31, 2014 at 12:32 pm

muttiallen is a registered user.

This reminds me of the time many years ago when the Palo Alto police arrested a father at his office in the middle of the day because a teacher overheard a child saying at school, "I failed my math test. My Dad is going to kill me!" Of course, the child was overstating. It made the school and police look like fools. Do use some sense in this, please!

Posted by parent, a resident of Downtown North
on Mar 31, 2014 at 1:02 pm

Trusting the "hairs on the back of your neck" is an invitation to profiling. Should we stop trusting unmarried priests because a large number of them have been accused of child rape? What about unmarried school teachers? At some point, we do have to trust administrators to do their due diligence with interviews and background checks. And we do have to trust law enforcement lock up senior officials who conspire with the rapists by protecting them with coverups.

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