In 2004, coinciding with the rise of widespread internet usage and online chat rooms, NBC kickstarted its Dateline show “To Catch a Predator” to massive critical acclaim. The hidden camera TV show hosted by journalist Chris Hansen targeted online child predators by partnering with the online watchdog group Perverted-Justice.
Perverted-Justice agents pose as children in online chats to identify potential child predators, investigate their backgrounds and archive their data publicly. With Hansen and NBC, Perverted-Justice would identify individuals who were attempting to engage in inappropriate and illegal interactions with minors and gave them the address of a home, which would be secretly occupied by Perverted-Justice agents, Hansen and NBC cameramen.
NBC hired adult actors who passed as children physically, who would act as decoys to aid in bringing the predators in the house. Once the predators came into the house, the decoy would leave the room, and Hansen would enter with a cameraman in tow, imploring the predator to “have a seat,” so that Hansen could interview the individual about their intentions.
NBC and Perverted-Justice had a close relationship with law enforcement. For the first two seasons of the show, the predators were not arrested following their interview with Hansen but did have records from chat logs and other messages turned over to the police. In later seasons, police were stationed outside the house so that predators could be promptly arrested.
The show was a hit, but it was also not immune to controversy. Frequent allegations of entrapment were levied against the show, with some claiming that Perverted-Justice decoys would be the first to bring up the topic of sex in online chat rooms, encouraging predators to participate in a crime they would not have otherwise.
In its most hard-hitting controversy, a district attorney who had engaged in inappropriate conversation with a Perverted-Justice decoy committed suicide before Hansen and his team arrived to interview and arrest the man at his house. This event ultimately led to the cancellation of the show.
However, work along this vein did not die along with “To Catch a Predator.” Individuals on platforms like YouTube have been emulating the tactics used by Hansen and Perverted-Justice to act as vigilantes in their own communities.
Justin Payne is a Canadian YouTuber who rose to fame by posting videos to YouTube of him confronting child predators after posing as a child in online chat rooms. Payne usually confronts the predators at public places, like gas stations and restaurants, where the predators believe they are meeting with prepubescent or pubescent boys or girls.
You can watch an example of his confrontations at this link. Payne’s videos follow a formula similar to several other online predator vigilantes: he poses as a child online, converses with potential child predators and then schedules a time and place to meet with them in-person after the predator first displays interest. Payne, like Hansen, then films the encounter and asks the predator questions about his intentions. Online predator vigilantes are often far more confrontational and aggressive than Hansen
Dr. Phil McGraw, on The Dr. Phil Show, brought two online pedophile hunters as guests to his talk show. Dr. Phil’s distaste for both individuals was immediately evident as he questioned the two men about the extent to which law enforcement was involved and the ethics of the tactics they used to converse with and confront the predators.
Vigilante predator hunters face a lot of the same criticism placed against Hansen and NBC, though the majority of criticism comes directly from law enforcement agencies and regards the proper turnover of predators to law enforcement. For one reason or another, law enforcement agencies are largely resistant to vigilante predator hunters. Often, they allege that vigilantes do not have the resources necessary to effectively deter pedophiles.
Dr. Phil does make one important point regarding the potential harmfulness of these vigilante operations – the consequences of the public shaming associated with these methods could be extremely devastating, even lethal. Dr. Phil notes that the predators broadcast on vigilante YouTube channels will likely be faced with threats of violence by angry viewers.
Though I do think it is a bit ironic that Dr. Phil would be lecturing others about the dangers of public shaming, it is a valid point. Despite the horror of these predators’ acts, their lives should not be threatened. Ideally, the predator hunters who film and interview them should provide resources for help – like contact information for psychiatrists or counselors – if they are not turning the individuals over to law enforcement.
Many local police forces, on the other hand, have made their distaste for vigilante predator hunters very clear. This is because they assert that vigilantes often overstep the boundaries of law, “extorting, blackmailing and exhibiting violence against those that they are targeting.”
However, one function of filming encounters between predators and predator hunters is that there is a visual record of the encounter, which protects the safety of both the vigilante and the predator. Vigilante predator hunters who are doing their job well will archive chat logs, avoid any behavior that could qualify as entrapment and provide video evidence of the event wherein no violent or illegal acts were involved. If vigilantes ensure that these protocols are followed, they can ultimately act as a vital asset to police forces rather than a liability.
Instead of discouraging and dismissing the assistance of vigilante pedophile hunters, local police should be strengthening their own departments which work to detect and punish child predators or, at the very least, forge partnerships with parties interested in working to catch predators.
Ultimately, I find the assertion from police departments that vigilante operations are negatively interfering with child sexual abuse prevention programs questionable. Police departments fail to prop up this assertion with explanations of precisely how vigilantes are interfering with their own operations.
If vigilantes are effectively finding and exposing local child predators, there logically must be a dearth of resources dedicated to stopping these individuals in a given community. If vigilantes are working as a supplementary force to ultimately root out child predators from the community, their work should be encouraged.
An honest inspection of where a community’s priorities lie must take place, and if we are not placing the protection of our most vulnerable members at the forefront, we’re doing something wrong. So long as vigilantes are working ethically, they are effectively working toward this goal, and that is something to be commended.