Kent Police have warned against people “taking the law into their own hands” following a series of sting operations by so-called “paedophile hunters” in Kent and south-east London.
The stings have been live-streamed on social media by groups such as The Hunted One, which has since stated it will no longer do this.
Chief Superintendent Thomas Richards, who is head of Kent Police’s public protection unit, said: “We have created specialist paedophile online investigation and child sexual exploitation teams who work to identify online criminality on a daily basis, sometimes using covert as well as overt techniques, and often in close partnership with other safeguarding organisations.
“Evidence-gathering is a very specialist job and can take considerable time and skill to ensure it is of sufficient quality to bring a high-risk offender to justice.
“I would therefore urge anyone who believes they have information or evidence of online grooming, or knows that a suspect is planning to meet a potential victim, to contact Kent Police at the earliest opportunity so that police officers can deal with these meetings and capture the best possible evidence and make any arrests safely.”
The Hunted One has stated on Facebook that it will will no longer be live streaming sting operations.
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Its statement said: “After careful consideration and team discussions we have decided that in moving forward that we will no longer be going live for the stings, as we don't want cases and evidence ruined after all our hard work in collecting the information for a successful conviction.
“The safety of our team as well as the general public is paramount. We thank you for your continued support, you will be seeing us soon.”
Police said despite the intentions, operations like this can damage investigations.
Ch Supt Richards added: “Although seemingly well-meaning, this can significantly hinder our work, compromise ongoing investigations and negate months of investigative work.
“There is also the risk that it can potentially identify people who are completely innocent and mistakenly associate them with grooming offences.
“I would add that whilst police have resources and expertise to protect the vulnerable and people with mental health issues, members of the public generally do not, and can cause such individuals to be placed at serious risk of harm.”
He added said: “The positive news is that awareness among children and young people about the dangers of meeting strangers has grown considerably and incidents where children meet adults in these circumstances are extremely rare.”
The Hunted One states on its website it has been involved in 56 arrests.
The Hunted One has more than 70,000 likes on Facebook and has had more than 5,000 shares on its live stings.
For more information about staying safe online visit www.thinkuknow.co.uk