Can vigilantes and whistleblowers live together? I came across the story of Dark Justice, a group that entraps sex offenders into believing they are meeting underage children and then reports them to the police. It made headlines recently when one of its targets was convicted in Newcastle and imprisoned for two years, apparently the first conviction in the UK as a direct result of vigilante activity.
The group says it only publishes names of its targets after a conviction. If it sticks to that, there would appear to be little chance of mistaken identity. So, is it a good thing? Is this a way to support a thinly spread police force that hasn’t got nearly enough resources to deal with the number of offenders in this climate of disclosure, historic inquiries and increased public awareness? Or is Dark Justice a Pandora’s box that will encourage less ethical groups to copy them, possibly target innocents or even corrupt evidence to the point that conviction becomes impossible?
We live in an age of near instant communication with increasing examples of private evidence gathering. Whistleblowing has been in the spotlight as a legitimate method of addressing grievances. Will it come to the point where all employees in sensitive jobs are encouraged to carry recording devices? Hidden cameras are on the increase in care homes and institutions of all types. Much of the malpractice they discover is terrible and, quite rightly, abuse is stopped.
One worry is that all these activities easily slip into the world of entertainment and so many television, radio and online programmes are springing up on the back of them. The US has a plethora of films and television programmes based on the avenging vigilante story, and in the UK, our reality shows regularly feature criminals, con men, abusers and cheats.
In early March, it was reported that police forces face more major budget cuts. Should we just bite the bullet and encourage more citizen justice? Perhaps Neighbourhood Watch could be beefed up into Chinese style “street committees” responsible for meting out justice as well as reporting crime.
I have heard a former senior police officer suggest that he’d be surprised if there were more than 35 dedicated officers tracking paedophiles in the UK, far too few to deal with the problem. He suggested that we should consider deputising work to some vigilante groups such as Dark Justice, and support legal entrapment by approved people. So it seems there is an appetite for bounty hunters to become part of the UK landscape.
I wouldn’t want any chance of stopping a child sex offender to be missed. Equally, I wouldn’t want overheated gangs inspired by superhero comics roaming the streets with all the risks of hurting innocents by mistake.
We already have increasing numbers of telephone lines to report children at risk, benefit fraud and other crime, but the law enforcement numbers are woefully inadequate to meet the need. Child sexual abuse is a crime perpetrated by organised gangs for money, as well as existing within families and carried out by individuals. We need to put more substantial resources into detection and prevention: both conventional law enforcement and professional social work.
What citizens are encouraged to do or not do has to become part of an urgent national debate. With the massive resource gap in statutory provision, it’s not difficult to predict a growth in people taking the law into their own hands. What follows is a high chance that there could be miscarriages of justice. Remember the time, not so long ago, when the News of the World published pictures and details of convicted paedophiles leading to several attacks on men who resembled them?
Legitimate whistleblowing has to live closer and closer to vigilante activity. Great care is needed as the former is something to be welcomed, whereas the latter is fraught with complexity and danger.