The Problems with Vigilantism: No Rules. No Accountability. No Oversight.

Recently, there have been numerous community-based groups of volunteers who have decided to take law enforcement into their own hands. There are several different iterations, but most of them include the word “creep” in their title. Generally, what these groups who they say, want to meet with underage girls for sexual activity. Then they set up a meeting with that person and confront them at the meeting with their video camera and allegations, then post the video (and often the person’s name and other personal information) to website in an effort to expose them as a “creep”.  In some instances investigation.

In the current social climate it seems as though the general public is supportive of these groups, and it is not difficult to understand why. The public has the impression that the police are not able or willing to do enough to stop the bad guys who are hurting children, so they need help. Everyone is against the exploitation and abuse of children through the use of the internet, including myself. I am a parent. So, in theory, these groups are a welcome and great addition to the effort to protect children from victimization by predators. The problem is, in practice, some of what these groups do and are capable of.

The police are empowered by the state, and by the people we elect through our democratic process, to enforce the laws and protect the people of this country. It cannot be understated how great of a responsibility that is and how immense the power is that goes along with it. The police have hierarchies, structures, checks and balances, management, laws, regulations, policies, complaint commissions and the public to hold them accountable. What they do is relatively transparent and accessible, and ultimately they are held to account by the gold standard of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the courts of Canada. Even with all of this in place, I don’t think it is any secret that the police sometimes get it wrong, terribly wrong, in their investigations. There are many well documented cases ofwrongful convictions and police misconduct in Canada. But, at the end of the day, when the police overstep their bounds, their authority, or just get things wrong in an investigation, there is a process in place to deal with those issues. When vigilante groups, however well meaning, attempt to exercise the power, authorities and duties of the police, they have no rules, no accountability and no oversight. They answer to no one. What then can be done when they step out of bounds or get it wrong? The simple answer is, nothing.

It is difficult to even attempt to call out a vigilante group for going too far. Who is it that sets the limits of what they can do? No one.  There is no limitation on entrapment. There is no accountability that they are accurate in their reporting of what actually happened, or even that they identify the correct person. There is no guideline for conduct. There is nothing that restrains them and little-to-nothing that can be done to defend yourself if you end up being caught up in one of their set ups, even if you are there innocently.

It is easy enough to think that if someone chats online with someone underage, there cannot be an innocent explanation, but recent news headlines regarding these videos seem to indicate otherwise. These organizations have confronted, and attempted to out as pedophiles, a person with a mental disability and a man who had agreed to meet up
with a teen girl to help her with her art work. In another instance, one of these organizations falsely identified a person on Facebook as being the subject of their setup. That person received death threats and fallout at his employment. The biggest media attention came when one of these organizations put the wrong name on their website and falsely accused the wrong person, who was an RMPC officer, of being the subject of one of their setups. One doesn’t have to look far to see examples of how things can and are going terribly wrong with these groups.

In another case, a complaint has been lodged with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner regarding one of these groups and an investigation is underway. Although the Privacy Commissioner has not released the nature of the investigation there is speculation that it is in regards to one of these groups releasing personal information online and allegedly not conforming with laws that may govern an organization of their nature.

In a free and democratic society we all enjoy rights and we take on certain responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is to allow the state to be the agent that enforces the laws. We empower them to do so and put procedures in place to keep them accountable. If the public disagrees with how the state is handling that enforcement or believes that not enough is being done, then in my opinion, the appropriate thing to do is to direct your time, energy, passion and resources into demanding reform and change of the government, not
taking the law into your own hands.