We are all concerned about people who groom and exploit children to satisfy their sexual needs. It is a vile and unacceptable crime.
But entrapment by self-appointed paedophile hunters who pose as children is risky and the evidence they gather may not even be admissible in court. There’s no control, no boundaries and no governance.
I have been giving thought to this tricky moral issue since being approached by BBC Points West to comment on the day a young soldier based at Tidworth was given a two-year sentence after he admitted grooming a child by sending explicit messages over the internet.
The soldier, Sam Dallow, believed he was contacting a 14-year-old girl. In fact he was messaging a paedophile hunter who carried out a sting operation at Andover train station where he confronted Dallow. The encounter was filmed by an associate.
I recognise that these hunters are bringing offenders to police attention, but I worry on several counts about this vigilante justice.
What if the suspect senses a trap and speeds off in their car?
What if the evidence handed to police is not sufficient for a case to be put before a court?
What if the hunters unwittingly put an active police investigation at risk?
What about the risk of violence when the hunters confront a suspect? I read of a case in Kent in April when violence broke out at a shopping centre during a sting set up by paedophile hunters. It ended with two people being charged with public order offences.
I share the concern expressed by Chief Constable Simon Bailey of the National Police Chiefs’ Council that the exposure of someone on social media could enable that suspect to destroy evidence before the police can investigate them.
I am also concerned that child victims could be left unprotected if the investigation is not carried out by police, and that the suspects themselves could go missing or be at risk of serious assault, leading to police resources having to be diverted into protecting them.
Then again, what if a group who have set themselves up as paedophile hunters publicly accuse an innocent person of committing such offences in a case of mistaken identity? Naming and shaming someone in those circumstances could lead that person to take their own life.
I acknowledge that policing budgets are under strain and that officers and staff have a lot of calls on their time. But I can assure you that the tackling of child sexual exploitation (CSE) is a strategic priority for our Force. Significant investment has been put into the investigation of CSE online and our officers are working closely with partner agencies and our police colleagues across the South West.
We have specially trained officers and staff in Wiltshire Police and across the South West.
Significant investment has been made to enable them to investigate paedophile suspects who operate online.
Any police officer will tell you that evidence-gathering is a very specialised job. It takes a great deal of training, skill and knowledge to gather evidence that can bring an offender to justice.
Perhaps one way forward would be for volunteer Special Constables with a particular interest in tackling CSE online to put their expertise to work under the guidance of child protection officers.
In the meantime, if anyone has suspicions that someone they know is grooming children for sex, they need to bring those concerns to Wiltshire Police – but not to take the law into their own hands. We must let our police do the hunting and bring these offenders before the courts.
Whilst the motives of the self-styled hunters are no doubt laudable, they may unwittingly be jeopardising police investigations.
By Angus Macpherson, Police and Crime Commissioner for Wiltshire and Swindon