A University of B.C. law professor has warned that stings conducted by vigilante groups to shame child predators could backfire with violent results.
On Friday, Surrey RCMP announced that an officer had been taken into custody following a livestream of a sting by the vigilante group Creep Catchers. Posing as minors, the group sets up fake online-dating profiles to lure suspected predators to meeting spots. They then film the interaction and post footage online to shame the suspect.
Similar stings were used in the controversial reality series To Catch A Predator and have been conducted by other groups in B.C.
Benjamin Perrin, an associate professor at UBC’s Peter A. Allard School of Law, said that while such stings uncovered the “really horrific behaviour” of Internet child luring, “the end doesn’t justify the means.”
Perrin, an expert on human trafficking and child sexual exploitation, warns that the use of such tactics to solve serious crimes poses a series of problems, particularly the lack of legal safeguards that police must have in place during an investigation.
“Obviously, for very good reasons, our society does not condone vigilante justice,” Perrin said.
Because groups like Creep Catchers aren’t subject to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, they don’t face the same scrutiny as police, Perrin said.
“There are obviously rules that (police are) subject to around things like entrapment and the methods they can use, but that’s appropriate,” he said. “Those are legal safeguards we’ve developed for good reason, and the police can work with those to do more enforcement.”
He said such stings could also put the vigilantes in physical danger. If a suspect was armed or had a history of crime, a “volatile situation” could turn violent.
“On the other hand, I do think that this organization’s existence and emergence in British Columbia speaks to a very serious problem and a growing frustration with inadequate resources being put into combating crimes committed on social media, particularly against children,” Perrin said.
Perrin recently began a five-year project researching how crime is perpetrated using social media, and how law and policy can be improved to combat it.
He said there’s a growing number of cases where children are sexually exploited, blackmailed or extorted through social media, but enforcement in virtual situations lags behind that against crimes committed in the “physical” world.
Last year, there were 1,060 incidents of children being lured via a computer in Canada, leading to 248 people being charged, according to federal crime statistics. This was up from 568 incidents leading to 88 people being charged in 2011.
In 2015, 2,642 incidents of sexual interference — touching any part of the body of a person less than 16 years old — led to charges against 989 people.
Perrin’s preliminary research has found parents are struggling to keep abreast of their children’s social-media use. He said one issue is Facebook’s requirement that a person to be at least 13 years old to sign up, which has pushed younger users toward more obscure social-media accounts that have potentially fewer protection and enforcement measures in place.
Staff Sgt. Rob Vermeulen, a spokesman for the B.C. RCMP, said in an email that the suspect officer in the Creep Catchers case was released after a judicial bail hearing, with a series of conditions.
“We continue to liaise with Crown Counsel with respect to charges,” Vermeulen said. “He remains suspended from duty.”
At a press conference Friday, Assistant Commissioner Brenda Butterworth-Carr said a code-of-conduct investigation was underway alongside the criminal investigation into the alleged actions of that officer.
If the allegations are proven, the RCMP “will take immediate steps to separate ourselves from this individual,” Butterworth-Carr said. “There is no room in the RCMP for this kind of behaviour or this kind of individual.”
Butterworth-Carr said the officer’s name was not released and emphasized that the individual is not Const. Dan Johnson, whose name has been circulating on social media.
“The misinformation and unfair assumptions attached to Dan (Johnson) have been extremely difficult for him and his family, and is an example of why we ask for an investigation, due process and formal charges to be considered before any name is discussed publicly — including on social media,” she said.