When predators become prey

Are concerned, yet untrained, members of the public entitled to do what they feel the police are failing to?

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Kevin Bingham had been expecting to meet a 14-year-old boy called Thomas, who he had been chatting to on dating app Grindr. So the 52 year old is understandably shocked when Joe Jones, a 48-year-old man in a stab proof vest and armed with a video camera, confronts him and places him under citizen’s arrest.

Jones runs Guardians of the North, one of a growing number of so-called ‘paedophile hunter’ groups. ‘Thomas’ doesn’t exist – he’s a decoy, and Bingham has been exchanging sexual content with Jones and his dedicated team of eight volunteers. As Jones and a fellow ‘Guardian’ repeatedly raise the question of why their target would send a video of himself performing a lewd act to a minor, he visibly squirms. “You’re here to meet a 14 year old and you expect me to let you get away with it?”, Jones admonishes, trying to contain his righteous anger. “So you prey on young boys? Do you not realise what a stupid mistake you’ve made today?”

“At 5’7, I’m not a big lad, but these people prey on the vulnerable and when they come across somebody like myself and my teammates, their arses fall out,” Jones tells Big Issue North. “They think they’re meeting a child that they can easily manipulate – but they can’t do that to us.”

A used-car salesman by trade, this isn’t Jones’s first successful sting. With dozens of these undercover citizens operating around the UK, it raises the thorny question of what happens when people perceive the law to not be doing its job properly. Are concerned, yet untrained, members of the public entitled to do what they feel the police are failing to?

“Paedophiles should be aware that we’re not going away – and we’re coming for you.”

Each operation follows a similar pattern. Guardians of the North pose as children, both boys and girls, aged 11-15, on various social media platforms, apps and dating sites. Profile pictures are donated by volunteers, taken when they were younger. A man gets in touch, learns the decoy is underage, initiates sexual conversation then suggests a meet. But in order for their evidence to be permissible in court and not count as entrapment, they cannot coerce the other person into committing an offence. Instead, they cast a hook into a murky pond – and wait.

“Once we’ve made a profile and put it online, we sit and wait. We never contact anyone first. We never send the first message and when we are contacted, we let them take the conversation in whatever direction they want to take it,” says Jones.

“Once you say to somebody: ‘Hi, I’m Lucy, aged 11’, and the man continues the conversation rather than saying: ‘Sorry you’re too young for me to speak to’, reporting or blocking the profile, you know where that conversation is going to lead to eventually.”

So it transpired with Bingham, who had booked a hotel and travelled over 150 miles from Nottingham to meet ‘Thomas’ in Sunderland. When police examined his phone, they discovered 199 indecent images and films of children. Admitting to attempting to cause a child to watch a sexual act, attempting to meet a child following grooming and making indecent images of children, he was sentenced in November to 16 months behind bars, and placed on the sex offenders’ register.

To date, the video of him being exposed has been viewed 38,000 times on the Guardians of the North’s Facebook page, and appeared online in articles by the Daily Mail, Metro, and local media.

Since Guardians of the North was founded 18 months ago, they claim to have helped apprehend 154 sex crime suspects, leading to 51 convictions – with scores of court dates pending. “We’ve caught people from all walks of life, from the [former] mayor of Peterlee to a manager of Waterloo train station and a head of a neighbourhood watch in Derby,” says Jones.

Figures obtained by the BBC show the scale of the work done by such groups. Last year more than 44 per cent of cases (114 out of 259) of the crime of meeting a child following sexual grooming – which carries a maximum sentence of ten years – used evidence gathered by paedophile hunters, compared with 11 per cent in 2014.

In September, when asked if police could consider working with paedophile hunters, the national lead for child protection, Simon Bailey, told the BBC: “I think that’s something we’re going to have to potentially look at, yes, but it comes with some real complexity.”

Despite their prolific conviction rates, senior police figures have asked paedophile hunters to desist in their activities, claiming the practice puts children at risk and jeopardises official investigations. Concerns have also been raised over whether they are acting contrary to the public interest by helping to create a crime where it might not otherwise have occurred.

Going under names such as Danny Catcher (based in the south-west), Dark Justice (a duo active around Newcastle that Guardians of the North frequently work with) and TRAP (Southampton), they claim to be a response to police cuts.

“If the government were willing to put more money into doing stuff like this, we wouldn’t need to exist,” says Jones. “The police lack the resources – and have to go through too much red tape – to do a sting in the same way we do.”

“I blamed myself for my daughter’s abuse because I left her with that person.”

Speaking to Big Issue North, Simon Bailey reiterates the police’s commitment to tackling child exploitation and abuse and hinted that it has taken heed of paedophile hunters’ methods. “We have invested in more undercover resources and other covert resources to catch those seeking to groom children online and we are already starting to see more of these offenders being brought to justice,” says Bailey. “We understand the desire to protect children but any member of the public who has information about child sexual abuse, online or otherwise, should get in contact with the police so we can investigate and bring people to justice. So-called paedophile hunters are taking risks they don’t understand and can undermine police investigations.”

Dame Vera Baird QC, chair of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners and Northumbria’s PCC, takes a less strident tone than some of her peers and suggests that police are already offering advice to paedophile hunters in her area.

“Northumbria Police seriously discourages any members of the public from acting in this way,” says Baird. “However, given the organisations’ determination to continue in what they clearly, and strongly, see as protecting children from harm, discussions have taken place to ensure that where this activity is carried out it is done as safely as possible for all concerned, whilst maximising the chances of a conviction where it is just.”

Even though Guardians of the North are based around Newcastle, they travel the length and breadth of the country, trying to flush out those they fear will do real children harm. They are self-funded, although members of the public can donate via a fundraising page.

Jones denies being a vigilante. In his eyes, they’re not meting out the punishment – merely providing evidence to the authorities. “A vigilante takes the law into their own hands,” he says. “We don’t. We do a lot of investigative work, carry out a sting and then hand over to the police.”

Jones’s belief that he is protecting children is borne out of personal circumstances. He set up Guardians of the North after a male attempted to groom his then 12-year-old son through Facebook. While the occupations of his members range from taxi drivers to funeral directors, all have experience of abuse – either directly or indirectly. “I chose people like that because they’re in it for the right reasons,” says Jones. “It’s become like therapy for them.”

Janet, who asks that her real name is not used, contacted the group requesting to be a decoy after her daughter was abused aged three. The perpetrator was arrested, yet took her own life before she could face justice.

“If I hadn’t joined the group 16 months ago, I don’t believe I would be here now,” says the 37 year old. “I was on a slippery slope. I tried going to counselling because I blamed myself for my daughter’s abuse – I left her with that person. It wasn’t until I had the support of the group that I forgave myself – they helped me realise that it wasn’t my fault and there was nothing I could have done.”

We speak following a late night for Janet. She was up until 1.30am talking to somebody online attempting to meet a child for sex. Is devoting a large proportion of her life to facing predators not triggering?

Joe Jones denies being a vigilante but says working with police is unrealistic. Photo: Ken McKay

“It doesn’t trigger me because the way I personally look at it is if I can keep them talking to me for the length of time that I’m online, then they’re not talking to a real child,” she says.

While Guardians of the North don’t reveal the identity of their targets until after a conviction has been secured, others do. Controversially, some groups livestream their stings – a method Jones is opposed to.

“A lot of groups are in it for the glory and wrong reasons. Livestreaming is going to bring us all crashing down because obviously they’re judging that person before they’ve had the chance to get through the courts,” he says. “They do it just for the likes and shares on Facebook. As crappy as it sounds, what they do is like public entertainment.
We wait until they’ve been through the court system.”

Bailey says revealing the identity of suspected paedophiles gives the suspect the opportunity to destroy evidence before the police can investigate them. “It can jeopardise ongoing police investigations and these people have no way of safeguarding child victims. It also leads to people who have been identified going missing or raising concerns for their safety,” he says. “This can divert significant resources into protecting suspects, which would be better invested in investigating and, where there is evidence, prosecuting them.”

Not only is the ritual humiliation of would-be perpetrators unedifying, trial by social media has consequences. Some have committed suicide before they have appeared in court, following videos of encounters being posted online.

“If someone is wrongly accused of being a paedophile in a hugely public way that makes people who live with them, live near them, work with them, assume they have committed the offence,” says Bailey. “The temptation to kill themselves may be just as great even if they are innocent – that is an appalling consequence to contemplate.”

On Easter Sunday this year, clashes took place at Bluewater shopping centre in Kent when a group called The Hunted One livestreamed a meeting with man they alleged was grooming a child. Footage appeared to show members of the public kicking and punching the man.

Kent police Chief Superintendent Thomas Richards joined officials in raising concerns. “We do have significant concerns about people taking the law into their own hands and the methods they use, and in some cases acting outside of the law, and would strongly advise against getting involved in, or setting up activities to entrap those suspected of intending to commit offences,” he said.

The Hunted One group conceded to no longer livestreaming confrontations. In a statement it said: “We will no longer be going live for the stings, as we don’t want cases and evidence ruined… The safety of our team as well as the general public is paramount.”

For justifiable reasons paedophiles generate huge, visceral anger. But their family members are also victims. Guardians of the North point out, to fulminating mob-like commenters on their Facebook page, that friends and family should not be a target of outrage, so why publish the video at all? Some have claimed that if these groups were genuinely concerned about the public good, they would be content with the imprimatur of a conviction rather than displaying an online ‘trophy’.

“It’s not fair on the families who become victims in it as well, but at the same time, we have to make it public otherwise it would never be publicised – and we believe the public has the right to know who they live around.”

While police don’t officially work with them, many paedophile hunter groups claim that, in private, they are supportive of their work and offer advice. Jones also says he has received off-the-record praise from councillors, NSPCC workers, and members of social services.

Speaking to Big Issue North however,   a spokesperson for NSPCC says that while online abuse and grooming is one of the biggest child protection challenges it faces, “identifying offenders and investigating crimes is best left to the police”.

“When members of the public take the law into their own hands it can run the risk of driving offenders underground, endanger ongoing police work and the legal process, or result in innocent people being harassed – all of which may put more children at risk.” The children’s charity does not rule out the idea of the police working with paedophile hunters however. “Protecting children from harm is the priority and we need to understand how police working with these groups could be done without jeopardising the case or putting themselves and children in danger.”

Guardians of the North claim their reputation is such now that anxious parents are increasingly heading straight to them – bypassing traditional law and order altogether.

“They’ll give us the names and addresses but there’s very little we can do, because we’ve got to wait for a suspect to contact one of our decoy accounts,” says Jones. “We can’t go and start liking someone’s Facebook pictures and draw attention to it. There’s been a couple of occasions though when we’ve taken over the chat from a parent and gone out and caught the chap within 12 hours.”

Earlier this year the survival of such groups was threatened when legal teams acting for two men, allegedly attempting to sexually abuse minors, argued that the use of evidence from anonymous duo Dark Justice “diminished the integrity of the court process,” and that they should be governed by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA).

“I was stressed for a couple of months because all our cases had to be put on hold awaiting the outcome of that test case,” says Jones, who was relieved by the ruling at Newcastle Crown Court in April. Justice Langstaff said: “The provisions of RIPA are directed towards the behaviour of public authorities rather than private citizens. There is no legal requirement for their activities to be subject to any of the controls that might have been a condition of authorisation.”

For his part, Jones feels that regulation would not work. “People keep saying we should work with the police, but if we did, we would have to silence ourselves – in reality, it’s never going to work.”

Given a legal green flag, and buoyed by their success, there’s little chance of Jones and his cohorts stopping. “In the north-east now, it’s very hard to get someone to meet us because we’re so prolific and well-known that people now fear the names Guardians of the North and Dark Justice. We’ve had a huge effect on the way people operate here.”

Whether people should be comfortable with the concept of justice being tacitly outsourced is debatable, but for Jones only one message counts. “Paedophiles should be aware that we’re not going away – and we’re coming for you.”

Concerns about online grooming can be reported to local police, via ceop.police.uk, or to Crimestoppers. If you think a child is at immediate risk of harm call 999.

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