The conviction of a Red Deer man for wrongfully targeting an innocent person in a Creep Catchers sting will not dissuade online vigilantes from hunting pedophiles, says a sociologist.
Some of these predator-hunters are predators themselves, said Chris Schneider, an associate professor of sociology at Brandon University in Manitoba.
“Many of these groups, they really believe they are doing just and moral work,” Schneider said in an interview with CBC Radio’s Edmonton AM.
Vigilantes who use the internet as a forum to shame and ensnare alleged pedophiles see themselves not only as above the law but morally superior, said Schneider.
They believe they are protecting vulnerable young women and children, he said.
“I think very few of them look in the mirror and think, ‘I’m a bully or I’m engaging in types of harassment.’
“I think they’re going to engage in these types of behaviours without really being reflective about the potential harm and damage and danger they’re doing by falsely accusing people.”
On Tuesday in a Red Deer provincial courtroom, Carl Young, also known as Karl Murphy, was convicted of criminal harassment after accusing a man of pedophilia.
Young met with another man in Lacombe in November 2016 and accused him of illegal acts with minors.
The man immediately denied he’d done anything wrong, but Young posted a video of the confrontation online the following day.
Young and the man had been communicating through the online app Grindr, where Young, who is 38, was posing as a teenage boy.
They arranged to meet, but the man testified in court he planned to watch a movie with the teen and that he has a learning disability which makes it difficult for him to pick up on social cues.
The baiting technique is standard practice for vigilante groups, which often lure men online under the guise of being a teenager, and then film the ensuing confrontations.
The risk of falsely accusing innocent people with ambush tactics is high, said Schneider.
He pointed to a recent case in Surrey, B.C., where a Creep Catchers group falsely accused an RCMP officer, and named him repeatedly online.
There have also been more troubling cases involving unfounded accusations, said Schneider, such as the case of Katelynn McKnight.
In April of 2016, a man showed up on McKnight’s doorstep in Edmonton, pointed a camera phone in her face and accused her of trying to lure a 14-year-old girl online.
Less than a month later, McKnight, who had been struggling with mental illness, took her own life. Her death was ruled non-criminal.
Inspired by a group called Perverted Justice, which would use camera crews in ambushing alleged predators at their homes, predator-hunting groups have spread across North America in recent years, said Schneider.
The Creep Catchers network has chapters spread across at least 19 cities in six provinces.
In Alberta, there are active chapters of the loosely affiliated groups in Calgary, Lloydminster, Medicine Hat and in Edmonton, where forum members share the names and photographs of local men they accuse of pedophilia.
‘It’s a grey area’
Schneider said the public should not be so quick to applaud the work of creep-catcher groups. The organizations, he said, undermine the justice system.
They can compromise evidence or impede police investigations by tainting evidence or sending real offenders back into hiding.
“The police are often doing investigations the public doesn’t know about, they’re online, finding these people and trying to lure them out,” he said.
“If they’re catching people, they’re often skirting the law. It’s a grey area. They’re saying and doing things that sometimes police officers legally can not do.”
Vigilantes may also be putting themselves or their targets in real danger. Unlike police, they aren’t trained to make an arrest or prepared to protect themselves.
‘While they’re doing work they believe is moral, they need to stop’ – Chris Schneider
“When you look at pedophiles or sex offenders, it’s really easy as a society to say we don’t want this, it’s something easy to champion,” he said
“To echo what the police have said, these organizations, while they’re doing work they believe is moral, they need to stop and let the police organizations engage in these types of these investigations.”