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imageLoud and clear.Toby Melville/PA Archive

In recent months, the UK has been gripped by cases of widespread organised child abuse – in Rotherham, Oxford, Rochdale and even Westminster. The police’s slow and incompetent reactions (and even complicity) are at issue in all these cases and many are furious at the danger into which children were needlessly put.

There are signs of people taking the law into their own hands. Apparently a major development – but we’ve been here before.

In August 2000, a group of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and children protested against a child sex offender who had been grooming local minors in an attempt to set-up an intricate network of sexual offending. They demonstrated in the only way working-class communities of yore knew: by marching to the house of the “offender” and making a huge noise (historically known as “rough music”) to vilify the transgressor in question.

Of course, Paulsgrove’s impact was felt around the UK. And instead of a prolific offender (whose crimes were and are a matter of official record) being stigmatised, it was the group mobilising against him that was roundly vilified – by the police who were supposed to be protecting their families, by politicians, child protection charities, the probation service, and above all by the press.

The bile directed at the Paulsgrove residents who dared to “take the law into their own hands” was a sight to behold. They were shocked to find themselves derided as vigilantes, scum, fishwives and dim-witted welfare scroungers simply for trying to protect their children.

I studied the Paulsgrove riots, their causes and their participants for years, and I saw things rather differently.

Urban myths

Gossip and rumour about Residents Against Paedophiles, the group that organised the demonstrations, and its so-called “hit-list” of names were largely an invention of Hampshire police and the media. The residents never had a list; they simply wandered around the streets, and when they got close to the home of a “paedophile”, they were able to identify it as an offender’s because the police accompanying them suddenly created a protective barrier outside the front of the property.

All of the negativity around the riots – vigilantism, vandalism, violence and property damage – was used as “evidence” in a much wider debate over whether or not the general public should be allowed to know whether sex offenders are living in their communities.

Not long after Paulsgrove, that argument seemed to be over. The apparent consensus for much of the 2000s was that public notification should not be allowed for fear that violent scenes such as those in Paulsgrove would appear with greater frequency and intensity.

To back up that conclusion, all sorts of spurious evidence was provided by the police, probation (especially NAPO - the National Association of Probation Officers) and children’s charities, and it worked. The debate was effectively closed down for years.

Making a noise

Yet still, thanks to the campaigning spirit of the likes Sara Payne, whose daughter Sarah was killed by a paedophile in 2000, the government began to explore the possibility of a public notification system. And in 2008, after pilots in four police forces, they implemented the Child Sexual Offender Disclosure Scheme.

But new fronts have opened up since then. Social networking technologies have created a plethora of new avenues for criminal activity – and so it goes for online grooming by sexual offenders, who use the internet to locate young children and adolescents and persuade, flatter or trick them into meeting in person.

Now, members of the public are using the same technology to catch such offenders before any actual sexual abuse has taken place. In recent years, more and more individuals and groups of individuals have engaged in their own online investigations, identifying, tracking and luring unsuspecting child sex offenders to locations where they are confronted and the evidence of their online conversations are handed over to the police, alongside a recording of the “confrontation”.

This evidence acts as evidence of “intent”, which has long been regarded as the main problem for attempts to link grooming communications to sexual crimes against children.

Perhaps the most visible exponent of such action is Stinson Hunter, star of recent Channel 4 documentary The Paedophile Hunter. His group go online and pose as young children, enticing child sex offenders to meet up at a house. They are confronted, filmed and a file of these activities is handed over to the police. The recording of the confrontation is then placed on a social networking site.

Up in cyber-arms

It should not surprise us that impulses such as these have arisen now. Aside from the long-brewing uproar over historical organised child abuse, we are also living in a time when the behaviour of sexual abusers is moving faster than the police’s ability to keep up – a classic incubating environment for public action.

Vigilantism usually arises in policing vacuums, when official means for resolving criminal justice problems are inadequate, malfunctioning or lacking – and as far as child abuse and grooming goes this is precisely the condition we live in now.

The growth of the internet has led to big changes in the ways child sex offenders target and approach victims. It is not the case that the police are completely useless at catching these individuals, nor is the National Probation Service to blame when sex offenders re-offend while on license. Social control agencies cannot be everywhere 24/7 – and so public/non-official policing of child sex offenders are filling the void.

So, I say let the public actually become a part of a “public” protection system and help out with protecting their own families and communities. The gap between public and professional protection needs to be closed, and if individuals in local communities have the time, inclination and resources to expose the people who pose a threat to their children to the police, we should let them.

This might not only save victims and possibly the odd offender (if they seek help for their impulses); it may also make child sex offenders think twice about contacting young children online in the first place.


Andy Williams is affiliated with the British Society of Criminology.

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