Vigilante groups who target child abusers ‘put the lives of innocent people in danger’ and should stop, North Yorkshire Police say.
The groups, who often publish videos of their high-profile stings against alleged paedophiles on Facebook, also ‘risk the course of fair justice’, the force said.
Vigilante groups have had court successes – last month we reported how a York man who posed as a doctor to target young girls was jailed after being caught in such a sting.
That was only one of “numerous instances in North Yorkshire where groups have live-streamed or posted videos on social media while confronting individuals they believe are involved in grooming children online,” police said.
“This is usually after using a ‘decoy’ victim – when an adult pretends to be a child online – to interact with potential suspects.
“The groups tend to call us during the confrontation and when social media posts have already been issued – this is generally far too late to prevent hampering the course of justice and also poses a serious risk of harm to everyone involved, including the group members themselves.”
The force has specialist teams working to bring offenders to justice “and all too often these groups put the lives of innocent people in danger, interfere with our ongoing investigations and risk the course of fair justice”.
‘We will not work with them’
Detective Inspector Paula Eccles from the police safeguarding team said: “The police service does not endorse online child abuse activist groups and we will not work with them.
“Unlike our highly-trained officers in the Online Abuse & Exploitation Team and the Digital Forensics Unit, they operate without any procedures to keep people safe.
“Accused people can become vulnerable to self-harm and there are cases around the country of people dying by suicide because of the action of such groups.
“Innocent family members can also feel threatened during the confrontations and subsequent harassment, which is a terrible situation to have forced upon them.
“Another grave concern is that some of the activity of these groups is a cover for crimes like blackmail and extortion.”
“There is no way of making sure that these groups act on reliable evidence and we have seen instances of the wrong people being targeted such as vulnerable adults. This creates unnecessary anguish and diverts vital police resources away from other victims.
“The standard of evidence that is gathered is also often poor, there are issues with legal disclosure, and the way the groups share their evidence publicly online before it has been tested at court.
“Some evidential issues can even cause cases to collapse. This is completely unacceptable.”
North Yorkshire Police say protecting children is a priority.