Is paedophile hunting fair game?

Des Mannion
Friday, September 8, 2017

Over the last few months, the profile of so-called ‘paedophile hunters' in the judicial system and media has been heightened after the former head of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Agency Jim Gamble suggested more than a thousand volunteers could be recruited to help police combat the rapidly-growing problem of online child sexual abuse.

Gwent police and crime commissioner Jeff Cuthbert took this further and suggested that organised groups of hunters could work alongside police.
Paedophile hunters are adults who pretend to be children in online chat rooms. Their method of operating usually sees them tracking and talking to paedophiles and would-be abusers and continuing the conversation when the offenders attempt to groom them. In many cases, real-life meetings are arranged between the groomer and intended victim.

In typical cases the paedophile hunters film the ensuing confrontation and post footage on the internet before alerting the authorities.

The stated aim of these vigilante groups is to protect children from harm by preventing potential sexual offenders from having access to children and abusing them. And there is no doubt that, in many cases, successful prosecutions have resulted from investigations carried out by paedophile hunters.

But despite the undoubted successes achieved by these groups, there is a fear that these groups may be doing more harm than good and in many cases are putting at risk the work of police specialising in online child sexual exploitation.

The NSPCC believes that when members of the public take the law into their own hands it can run the risk of driving offenders underground, jeopardise the legal process or result in innocent people being harassed - all of which may put more children at risk.

There have been instances where cases have collapsed at the last minute due to evidence from paedophile hunters being deemed unreliable, innocent parties and the families of those caught being victimised, and concerns being raised that identifying suspects gives them time to destroy evidence before the police can investigate them.

The groups also risk committing offences themselves whilst dealing with suspected paedophiles.

Despite the cautious encouragement from some senior policing figures like Mr Gamble and Mr Cuthbert, other figures in the police have urged paedophile hunters to leave them alone to do their jobs as specialists in the field.

Despite the insistence of some paedophile hunters that their involvement is necessary because police do not have the resources to cope with the rise of online child sex offences and grooming, specialist units in many police forces are specifically targeting offenders who use the web to commit their crimes.

For example, North Wales Police's Paedophile Online Investigation Team was established in October 2016 to tackle online child sexual exploitation and in its first eight months has made 60 arrests.

And the Home Office's recent announcement of £20m funding over three years to help police tackle online abuse and grooming, via undercover detectives going into internet chat rooms and conducting the same kind of investigative work that paedophile hunter vigilante groups have been doing is a further sign that the authorities are clamping down on this problem.

Most paedophile hunter groups are keen to stress that they are simply trying to help hard-pressed law enforcement bodies and that they want to co-operate.

But in too many cases it has been clear that these groups pose a significant risk to the justice system and anyone studying their methods should be left with serious questions about the way they encourage would-be offenders to commit crimes and how they gather evidence.
Despite these concerns it is clear that the police and Crown Prosecution Service are using evidence gathered by these groups, leading to dangerous offenders receiving significant jail terms. So the undoubted success of some vigilante groups means that the question will remain: Is paedophile hunting fair game?

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