By Janice Nesamani
Northwest Asian Weekly
King County Det. Jessica Santos is the person sex offenders turn to when they don’t want to commit a crime. She’s one of the few Asian American faces at the King County Sheriff’s Office, and a single mother.
Being a cop is a ‘phase’ that’s lasted 21 years. That’s what her Filipino father, who served with the American Navy, thought of his youngest daughter’s desire to don the uniform. Coming from a family with a strong Asian identity, a doctor or engineer would have been acceptable, but the police force? It wasn’t for women.
“I’m a first-generation Asian American. My mother was raised in Spain under a dictatorship and my father in the Philippines, during the Japanese invasion,” said Santos. “It wasn’t my parents’ dream for me to become a cop. Culturally, they looked at the police very differently.” As we sat in the interrogation room, Santos’ gun and badge are the only giveaways of her being a detective with the Sex Offender Registration Unit of the King County Sheriff’s Office.
Always wanted to be a cop
It was an idea that took root when Santos was in school and flourished even when her father insisted that she have a backup plan — go to college! “In our house, it was mandatory. It was where you went to succeed. I didn’t realize that not going to college was an option,” she said.
Her parents worked hard to put Santos and her two sisters through college. Her father was in the Navy and worked in the shipyard, while her mother worked every job she could get, coming home exhausted after graveyard shifts. Jessica struggled at the University of Washington when her roommate suggested she quit. “I called my father and said, ‘Dad, did you know in America, you don’t have to go to college? My roommate said I can quit.’ I remember him saying, ‘Of course, you don’t have to, but you have to.’”
So, Santos finished college and volunteered with the King County Sheriff’s Office. “That’s when I knew this is where I wanted to be. I was 21 and I talked to my parents, a lot. In our community, family is everything. If my father said no, then it was no, but I think my parents realized this wasn’t going away,” Santos recalled. “Once I got my uniform, my parents were very proud and supportive. They were still scared, but this is a scary profession for people from any culture. Maybe if they’d seen another Asian woman police officer, it would’ve been easier for me.”
Santos’ current assignment has come after she’d been on patrol duty, worked for the recruitment division, and worked for the domestic violence unit, where she won an award from a domestic violence action group. Her current unit is in charge of all registered sex offenders coming into unincorporated King County. The sheriff’s office is responsible for keeping records for all of King County. Jessica works with three detectives who specialize in the field.
Not an easy job
The unit deals with registered sex offenders and unregistered transient sex offenders. They go out to homes, knock on doors, and build rapport with offenders to determine if someone might offend again. “We can help them before they commit a crime. It’s pretty significant for someone to tell you they are going to do something awful. You have to get to know them. We talk to them during address checks, while making sure they’re okay. It’s not social work, but sometimes it looks like that. We observe them, learn the signs of them going into sexual deviancy cycles. We know their patterns. If they are stable, we can get them housing in a neighborhood,” Santos said.
“When you spend 10-12 hours a day confined in a car, it better be with someone you like,” said Det. Wendy Billingsley, who feels lucky to spend it with a friend, mentor, and sister. She was a part of the team when Santos joined the unit. “Jessica has a knack for making anyone she meets feel important. That’s difficult to do when you’re dealing with elders, transients, and people with mental health issues, but she always treats them respectfully. She goes out of her way to do what’s right.” Billingsley added, “Once, she arranged for hotel vouchers and we bought food and groceries for a woman and her children who didn’t have shelter. The woman was from a different state and was a domestic violence survivor, as well as a registered sex offender. Jessica felt we did more to benefit her and her children that day.”
Billingsley enjoys Santos’ wicked sense of humor and her competitive streak. “She’s like Claire from Modern Family — excessively competitive. We had a Fitbit competition at work and Jesse danced with her kids and went for a walk in her neighborhood at 11:30 p.m. just to get in a few extra steps. She clocked more than 20,000 steps a day. That’s insane. But she challenges me to be a better person and not get complacent.”
Det. Michael Luchau, another team member, described Jessica as a caring individual who wants to help, but also holds people accountable. “I admire her interview technique. She has a real talent for it.”
Luchau also shared that Santos helps to raise funds for the Fallen Officer’s Memorial and volunteers for the Honor Guard. “It’s not a fun job and she does it. It’s walking in a parade and standing post for hours. She just attended a funeral for a fallen officer recently,” he said. It explains why a few officers are considering nominating her for the Detective of the Year Award.
It is not a job many would envy, but it has to be done to keep the community safe. Santos explained why she enjoys it. “I like figuring out what triggers a person. I ask, ‘How can I help this person avoid that situation? If a person is going to commit another crime, how can I intervene? Can I be proactive in that I don’t wait for the crime to happen and then react?’ I like being proactive.”
It’s not every day that Santos makes a breakthrough. Sometimes it takes weeks, months, and even years. Santos was working with her partner on a high-risk sex offender. They visited him for well over a year, went to his house, and checked on him every 90 days.
They noticed his behavior, mannerisms, and way of living started to change. They also noticed that certain times of the year were harder for him. Maybe it was because a family member had died or something traumatic had happened. So, she and her partner talked to him constantly. They visited him at times when he was losing control. They asked him about his family, his pets. One day, the man walked into their office and said, “If I don’t get help, this is what I’m going to do.” He narrated a detailed and horrific crime that he had planned to commit. Everything was in place, ready to be set in motion. Jessica’s team committed him to a lockdown facility where he received professional help.
“I think we saved someone’s life that day. What he wanted to do was horrific. I don’t believe he would have come looking for us if he didn’t know us. If he hadn’t seen our faces over and over — never judging, never pointing fingers, extending whatever help we could. He came there that day because he wanted to talk.”
Situations like this one keep Santos going when the media attacks her profession, and when her colleagues are attacked or killed because they wear a uniform. She’s that connection, the face an offender has seen. They come to her when they don’t want to commit a crime.
Santos has other faces, too — that of a single mom. “I would be lying if I said it was easy. When I’m home, I’m mom and when I’m at work, I’m not. For my children, I’m mom for 24 hours,” said Santos. “Putting on a gun and vest and walking out the door every morning. I know exactly what I’m sacrificing. My kids know the reality of that. I was a cop before I became a mom. It also helps me when I talk to parents and inform them of a sex offender in their neighborhood. I understand their concerns because I have the same ones.”
If all she saw was people doing horrible things, Santos said she would be a very negative person. So, she teaches cardio kickboxing at the gym for county employees during her lunch hour. Her classes are always full. Her friends are people who work outside of law enforcement. Then, there’s her ritual before she gets home — she centers herself, leaves the negativity of the day in her car, and then enters her house. “With this comes balance,” Santos said.
Janice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.