PITTSBURG -- It was obvious something was different when they started checking the air ducts.
The search team also looked through the man's cell phone to check for pornographic images or videos, which would have violated his release conditions.
By the time the dozen or so officers left the man's Pittsburg motel room, drawers were left open, laundry bags had been searched and air duct screens were removed, leaving little doubt that the occupant was abiding by the strict tenets of his parole as a registered sex offender.
The police team's stop at a home near downtown was a little more dicey. GPS coordinates indicated that a registrant was inside his mother's house -- a violation because he wasn't registered at that address and because it was about 50 yards from a children's park -- but he wasn't there. During a neighborhood search, the parolee came strolling from around a corner, as if he had just been on a walk, but it was clear to officers and in his GPS trail that he aborted an attempt to flee.
On Tuesday morning, a dozen-member team of state parole agents and deputies from the Contra Costa Sheriff's Office, and police from Pittsburg, Clayton, Concord and Pleasant Hill, made three arrests for parole violations in its first four searches.
The team was one of several multiagency squads canvassing Contra Costa to ensure the county's registered sex offenders -- about 1,700 live within the boundaries -- were living where they said they were living, and, depending on their parole, steering clear of children and staying out of trouble.
Their efforts were part of the first statewide sex offender compliance sweep, dubbed "Operation Safe Playground," conducted this week under the leadership of the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Besides enforcing compliance, the teams were dispatched throughout California to hunt for at-large sex offenders.
"To the extent we can, we're going to uncover things," said Fredrick Bridgewater, regional supervisor for the California Parole Apprehension Teams, made up of the specially trained parole agents coordinating the weeklong operation.
Through Wednesday -- figures for Thursday were not available by press time -- teams had performed 1,840 parole, probation and registered sex offender searches and audits across the state, yielding more than 400 arrests and revealing 49 compliance violations. The arrests included a variety of offenses, such as possession of drugs, weapons, and child and adult pornography.
Local law enforcement agencies have conducted similar sweeps in the past, though more limited in scope and generally aimed at ensuring that sex offenders were living at the residences where they registered.
The diligence of such sweeps came under scrutiny after the surfacing of Jaycee Dugard, which in August 2009 shone an international spotlight on the failures of county, state and federal authorities to find Dugard, whom authorities said spent 18 years after she was kidnapped living in registered sex offender Phillip Garrido's backyard near Antioch.
Last week, a statewide task force set up in the wake of the Dugard case recommended repealing a voter-approved ban on registered sex offenders living within 2,000 feet of a school or park where children "regularly gather," saying the restriction has led to a dangerous 24-fold increase in homelessness among sex offenders. Parole agents say transient offenders are more difficult to track.
Bridgewater downplayed the effect of the Dugard case on the state's current efforts, saying the emergence of the California Parole Apprehension Teams in January, and the increased capacity for coordination as a result, had more to do with the breadth and intensity of this week's first-of-its-kind sweep.
"We have always conducted these operations in the past," said Bridgewater, who then alluded to the Dugard case. "We do want to make sure those things don't happen again."
But the influence of the Dugard revelation -- if only psychological -- has been hard to ignore. As recently as March 2009, a local compliance sweep consisted mostly of door-knocking and making sure registrants were living where they said, and state parole agents were rarely seen. About a year later, their presence at a similar sweep was significantly larger.
On Tuesday, the refined focus yielded immediate results: The Contra Costa team's first visit at an apartment building revealed that a parolee was blatantly violating his release terms by living with his girlfriend and young daughter despite his being prohibited from contact with children.
A visit to a suburban home in Pittsburg uncovered a transient parolee unlawfully living at the home of his girlfriend's father. He was located through a GPS unit that tracks him to within a few feet. At the home they found a knife -- he is barred from having weapons -- and images on his cell phone suggesting that he had contact with children recently.
Both men were arrested.
Robert Salonga covers public safety. Contact him at 925-943-8013. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga.