The police are less than happy with the activities of these digilantes. One such group, who operate under the group identity of frontman Stinson Hunter, have received a cease and desist letter from Warwickshire and West Mercia Police; warning that the group may disrupt on-going criminal investigations into child sexual abuse and that the posting of chat transcripts and suspect identities on their website may constitute a breach of the law. Another paedophile exposure group, Letz Go Hunting, were forced to cease activities following the suicide of one of their targets who was subsequently being investigated for grooming and online child sexual exploitation after they exposed him on their website. One of the targets of Stinson Hunter’s campaign has also recently committed suicide; however the group has taken the decision to continue their activities, claiming that they are not to be held responsible for the death in question.
Whether there is moral culpability to be had here is a question beyond the scope of this blog. What I intend to question is the motivation behind such tactics by civilian actors outside of the traditional law enforcement environment and analyse the uncomfortable relationship that has been created between police, the public and vigilante.
The operations of these digilante groups is generally similar; a decoy will set up an online dating profile or a social network presence pertaining to be from an underage child and wait to be contacted. When contact with a potential predator has been established, the decoy will engage in communication with the suspect, recording the conversation and collecting any evidence sent to them. Eventually, a meeting between the “child” and the predator will be established and the suspect will be confronted by the adults behind the pseudo-child, armed with video cameras and the chat transcript. Following the meeting, the digilante group will hand their evidence over to the police to mount a prosecution and will upload their evidence to their websites in order to publically name and shame the predators that they have been in contact with. Often, the supporters of these digilante groups will share these posts, outing the alleged (and remember, it must remain alleged until a court of law successfully convicts these individuals, however damning the evidence might appear) offender as a predator and danger to children. Having been outed in their communities, it is not uncommon for the suspect to become a victim of harassment, threats and violence.
So why do these groups persist in their activities if there is a risk of genuine violence against the suspect – and why do the police allow these activities to continue?
From public interactions these groups have with their supporters, it is clear that the primary motivation for engaging in these activities is one of frustration. The digilantes, and their supporters, believe that not enough is being done to safeguard children from grooming by sexual predators and that the police are incapable of policing the internet. Comments left on the Facebook page of Stinson Hunter applaud the group for taking action when the police haven’t or are too incompetent to do so - these comments are generally met with consensus from other supporters. These comments have a cohesive effect; aligning supporters with a moral crusade against online predators. It also highlights the feeling that police forces should be more transparent in their investigations.
By presenting the evidence that they have collected as soon as they are able to, the Stinson Hunter group is able to capatalise on this perceived need for transparency in a way that the police are unable to do so. By naming and shaming their suspects, Stinson Hunter and Letz Go Hunting enjoy public affirmation of the work that they are doing while increasing public scrutiny on the work of child protection by police forces. After all, if it is so easy for untrained individuals such as these digilante groups to investigate and expose online predators, why are the police not doing it?
It is in this trap that the police have found themselves in; unable to show the work that they are currently engaging in to the extent that digilante groups are able to, and unable to publically condone the actions of an unsanctioned criminal investigation, the police are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Accept the help offered by digilante groups and many more will be created. Numerous groups will pop up, all claiming to have incontrovertible proof that so-and-so is a predator. Eventually, someone will present incorrect evidence and an innocent person will be hurt. So, too, will a police investigation eventually be disrupted, evidence thrown out of court and dangerous individuals allowed to freely roam the internet, grooming real children for abuse. On the other hand, if the police shut down these digilante groups, in fear of the above happening, they will be seen as attempting to whitewash their own incompetence. Their actions will be perceived as motivated by the threat of competition that Stinson Hunter and Letz Go Hunting provide, and trust in the police which – following plebgate, the Lawrence inquiry, allegations of stats fiddling and claims of corruption at the top – is already at an all-time low, will diminish further.
What, then, are the police to do?
Warwickshire and West Mercia have made their stance clear. Other police forces will follow in due course. The public interest in uncovering sex offenders, however, will continue until some kind of permanent solution is discovered. What that solution is? I have no clue.