Should police work with anti-paedophile vigilantes?
Role of unauthorised volunteers in convictions is growing, but serious concerns remain
The UK’s chief police officer for child protection has said that police may be forced to work with vigilante anti-paedophile groups to avoid them unintentionally sabotaging criminal investigations.
Chief constable Simon Bailey says that vigilante organisations are “not the answer”, despite figures obtained by the BBC showing that an increasing number of child sex offence cases are using evidence gathered by volunteer “paedophile hunters”.
Under names like Dark Justice and Guardians of the North, these vigilante organisations create fake underage online personas to lure suspected paedophiles out of hiding.
The groups save any evidence of sexual grooming, such as chat logs, pictures and videos, to be passed on to the police.
If the unsuspecting groomer arranges to meet with their “victim” in real life, they are confronted instead by members of the organisation. Videos of such encounters have been viewed millions of times online.
“I'm not going to condone these groups and I would encourage them all to stop,” Bailey told the BBC, but I recognise that I am not winning that conversation.”
The role of vigilante groups in convicting paedophiles has expanded rapidly in recent years. In 2016, 44% of cases involving adults convicted of trying to meet a child after sexual grooming relied at least partially on evidence obtained by volunteer anti-paedophile groups, compared to 11% in 2014.
However, Bailey, and many others in professional child protection, are concerned that volunteer “paedo hunters” end up doing more harm than good.
“They don’t take into consideration the safeguarding risks to children, the implications of a failed operation or the compromise of one of our own operations,” he told BBC Radio 4.
A mistake on the part of an amateur paedophile hunter could be costly - a child sex offender who realises they are the subject of a sting might destroy crucial evidence or retreat deeper underground to continue their offences even further from the eyes of the law.
There are also serious public safety implications when it comes to exposing alleged paedophiles in public. One group calling itself The Hunted One came to prominence earlier this year for a botched confrontation at the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent, which ended with two witnesses attacking a man lured under the belief he was meeting a teenage girl.
The police’s public protection unit said at the time that the incident highlighted “significant concerns” about vigilante justice.
Although most self-styled paedophile hunters are adamant that they follow the law in their confrontations, there is a risk that one of the millions of people who watch such videos online could post identifying information that could endanger a suspect or their families.
Uploading or live-streaming alleged encounters with paedophiles before or during a trial could also prejudice criminal proceedings.
With these issues in mind, Bailey says that finding a way for volunteer groups to operate in tandem with official investigations was a matter of “real complexity”.