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Updated: 4th September 2018 19:04

Analysis

Creep Catchers: 'Justice as entertainment' means never having to say you're sorry

There are times in life when "sorry" simply doesn't cut it. Wrongly accusing an RCMP officer of being a pedophile on social media is definitely one of them.

Recent arrests likely to buoy online vigilantes, but experts warn trend could end in disaster

An unidentified man flees after he's allegedly caught meeting a minor for sex in a video posted by Surrey Creep Catchers. (Surrey Creep Catchers/Facebook)

There are times in life when "sorry" simply doesn't cut it.

Wrongly accusing an RCMP officer of being a pedophile on social media is definitely one of them.

Police, lawyers and civil rights advocates have issued dire warnings about the possible pitfalls of online vigilantism in the wake of a pair of recent arrests prompted by the investigations of self-appointed citizen cops.

Due process, the presumption of innocence, the legalities of entrapment: face it, those mundane concerns pale in comparison to the excitement of denouncing a creep on Facebook Live.

And if they weren't listening before, the vigilantes in B.C. are only likely to be more emboldened by charges this week against one of their targets and the arrest last week of another — a Kamloops sheriff and Surrey Mountie respectively.

Ryan Laforge, president of the Surrey Creep Catchers, sees himself as a protector and vows to keep hunting pedophiles. (Ryan Laforge/Creep Catchers/Facebook)

But by any measure, the mistaken identification of a different, entirely innocent RCMP officer in online comments from supporters of the Surrey Creep Catchers should give pause to anyone truly dedicated to the cause of justice.

Ryan Laforge, the head of the group, issued an apology, asking the officer and his family to understand that he's trying to do a public service and "that sometimes the public gets carried away."

That presumably is why real police don't outsource investigations of child predators or broadcast arrests. It's also why wrongful convictions always make headlines: one miscarriage of justice brings the whole system into disrepute.

"It's justice as entertainment," says Benjamin Perrin, a UBC law professor and expert on child sexual exploitation.

"This is a group that is manufacturing a scenario and an investigation and identifying someone who very well may have committed these offences — we don't know that yet. But doing so in a way that gives themselves publicity and that they seem to take delight in.

"And that's not how the justice system works."

'Creating new offenders?'

In recent years, a chorus of police chiefs have begged groups like Creep Catchers and Creep Hunters to leave the business of tracking and catching pedophiles to the professionals.

The fact that their pleas seem to fall on deaf ears speaks to both the level of concern about the unpatrolled nature of the internet, and the vulnerability of children to the darkest parts of the social media wired into their DNA.

Some of that likely comes down to a lack of transparency in the justice system and a failure to publicize the trials that result from the investigations police do undertake.

It may also be that when you start looking for depravity, the internet's a bottomless pit.

University of B.C. law professor Benjamin Perrin says the risks posed by online pedophile hunters outnumber the benefits. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

That's one of Perrin's main concerns.

Police look for predators trolling forums to initiate sexual talk with children. The case involving the Surrey RCMP officer, by contrast, began with a Creep Catcher Craigslist ad titled "Strictly Platonic."

The group's president told the Vancouver Sun that a woman in her 30s posing as a 15-year-old "baited" the target "long and hard." In that situation, Perrin asks, who is actually doing the luring?

"Is there in fact a risk that they're not simply identifying existing alleged pedophiles, or are they creating new offenders?" he asks.

"The concern is that this could be reversed and you've got adult men and women posing as minors, who are in fact grooming men who may or may not be pedophiles or sex offenders at all and you're grooming them towards that kind of behaviour."

'I am completely broken'

Police have to walk a fine line around the issue of entrapment and violation of charter rights. Online vigilantes may not have the same concern if they're passing information on to the police — at first.

But as far as the law is concerned, they risk becoming classified as agents of police once they regularly share information; at that point, they would be subject to the strict legal guidelines debated up to the Supreme Court of Canada in the interests of protecting the rights of private, innocent citizens.

Creep Catcher videos begin with a song that taunts a target caught on tape: 'You're done Bud.' (Surrey Creep Catchers/Facebook)

Canada isn't the first country to grapple with the issue of online pedophile hunters.

In the U.K., a 28-year-old man killed himself in 2013 four days after he was arrested by police following a sting by a vigilante group that filmed a confrontation with the man. The group denied responsibility.

A Guardian reporter spoke with a middle-aged man whose encounter with a pedophile hunter was posted on YouTube. "Peter" claimed he thought he was meeting an 18-year-old; the vigilante claimed he had posed as a 15-year-old.

Regardless, Peter moved across the country.

"I have lost everything apart from my life. I have lost my job, I've lost my home, I've lost family, friends, I am a shell of a man," he told the newspaper.

"I am completely broken."

'You're done, Bud'

Creep Catchers and Creep Hunters make it clear they don't condone violence, and they say they're not out to entrap people.

The tone of the videos they post and the accompanying comments is — if anything — gleeful.

The videos start with the heavy beat of a rap song: "You're done Bud/ We got the chat logs/ You came to meet up with a child, huh?/ Well, give us a smile for the camera."

The subjects look invariably ashamed, frightened, pathetic. Some have sent pictures of their genitalia to whom they believed was a child. Some have agreed to meet for coffee.

Unidentified members of the Surrey Creep Catchers 'squad' pose outside a Walmart in an effort to scare off 'creeps.' (Surrey Creep Catchers/Facebook)

In one, a man tells his inquisitor he thought he might have been conversing with Creep Catchers.

"I just wanted to see what's going on," he says. "I apologize. I'm not a criminal or anything."

The cameraman gets angry. He tells the man to say "Surrey Creep Catchers got me" for the camera. The target then walks away across a parking lot as the other man yells: "You're f--kin' done buddy. You're a f--ckin' pedophile."

It's a long way from the dignity and respect accorded even the most heinous of offenders as hallmarks of the Canadian legal system.

Is it better? Is it worse? Is an eternity of shame on YouTube more fitting for an untried accused than trial and sentence according to a body of precedent decided over decades?

And why is a guy with cargo shorts and an iPhone the judge?

'This is the start of it, really'

The videos are, of course, what it's all about. They fit into a pattern established long ago by the show To Catch a Predator. A program that was also criticized as being more interested in ratings than justice.

The confrontation with the Mountie was caught on Facebook Live, a medium that turns everyone into a broadcaster. On that level, the staid confines of a justice system that still usually denies cameras in our courtrooms is bound to fail.

Perrin's aware he's preaching to the choir. If anything, the recent publicity and success of the creep hunting stings will only spur more online vigilantes into action. But that doesn't mean he's wrong.

"The more types of incidents like this that we see, the more likely that some of these risks are likely to happen," he says.

"What's the end of this story? This is the start of it, really."

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

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