Analysis

Perverting justice? Privacy ruling won't stop vigilantes 'addicted' to on-camera stings

This week, B.C.’s acting privacy commissioner delivered a legal blow to a controversial Surrey vigilante group that lures, then captures videos of people it claims are pedophiles, posting ambushes online in a bid to shame them.

'They are so addicted to the feeling of being behind the camera and blasting somebody'

Ryan Laforge, the president of Surrey Creep Catchers, presents himself as a 'hero' trying to protect society from predators, but B.C.'s Privacy Commissioner has ruled that his tactics go too far. (Ryan Laforge/Surrey Creep Catchers/Facebook)

This week, B.C.'s acting privacy commissioner delivered a legal blow to a controversial Surrey vigilante group that lures, then shoots videos of people it claims are pedophiles, posting ambushes online in a bid to shame them.

In his ruling, Drew MacArthur ordered the Surrey Creep Catcher group to destroy those videos and any other personal information it had gathered.

MacArthur also took a swipe at the group's claims that it protects public safety, saying its actions can't be viewed as legitimate investigations or even journalism.

The ruling was called a "watershed" moment by an expert troubled by a rash of live-streamed stings — some of which turn abusive.

But it's not clear the privacy ruling will curb so-called "creep catchers."

Ryan Laforge says he will not obey the order from the Information and Privacy Commissioner, but will repost the videos in question. (CBC News)

Many of these groups see themselves as saviours, performing a valuable public service where authorities fail, say critics.

"[These groups] see themselves as above the law and outside the law.They really see themselves as heroic — protecting the public when the police won't," said Wade Deisman, an associate dean and criminologist at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, who has studied the phenomenon, involving only a "scant handful" of groups in Canada, since it began .

Deisman says many of the people who join these groups — which he says resemble "gangs" — are sexual abuse survivors themselves.

That can translate into a zeal for catching sexual predators that won't be dented by a privacy ruling.

Driven by fear

Homegrown "justice" groups are fed by fears which morph into a "bubble of hysteria," says Deisman.

While worldwide, police admit struggling to stop online child luring, preventative efforts to educate children and parents are more effective than civilian entrapment, he says.

"Creep Catchers pretends like there is just this sea of vulnerable children out there and therefore they are white knights and protectors. I think that's just baloney."

Surrey Creep Catchers post images and video of alleged targets online but do not show their own faces in their group shot on Facebook, only their uniforms. (Surrey Creep Catchers/Facebook)

And the deep, primal fears that vigilante groups tap often turn violent.

In the U.K., mistaken targets of some shaming campaigns were beaten or burned to death.

"It's like we are back in the middle ages and people are coming with torches," said Deisman.

One of the first American online sex offender hunting groups, called Perverted Justice, formed an alliance with police groups and even referred leads to U.S. Homeland Security, after organizing a series of stings for the now-defunct NBC Dateline television show called: To Catch a Predator.

The organization,relying on online research in chat rooms, boasts 623 convictions.

"The feedback from police we've directly worked with has been 100 per cent positive," director of perverted-justice.com, Xavier Von Erck, told CBC in an email.

Chilliwack Creep Catchers, and other groups like them, present a lot like a 'gang' says an expert who studies vigilante movements. (Chilliwack Creep Catchers/Facebook)

But even he does not endorse ambushes with no police co-ordination.

"I sympathize with their frustration, but anyone chasing down people offline is going about things in a way that could end quite dangerously," he said.

Deisman says while U.S. policing groups did work with civilian sex predator hunters for a time, they now distance themselves.

Evidence gathered by "crusaders" is deemed problematic as it can be tainted by tampering.

There are mistakes, and some targets turn out to be mentally-disabled.

Techniques are also troubling.

Some groups lure using "bait" that is one age, then switch to an underaged person at the last minute.

Methods of entrapment often get rejected in Canadian courts.

Defiant

All this aside, Ryan LaForge remains defiant.

He faces assault charges and now a privacy ruling against him but has no plans to stop.

Surrey Creep Catcher president Ryan Laforge has been ordered to remove and destroy information from two individuals who complained about the misleading means by which their information was obtained. (Ryan Laforge)

"They can arrest me. They can charge me, and we'll take it in front of a judge. And if they find me guilty, I'll go to jail. And when I get out, I'll do more videos and I'll post them," said Laforge who does not care if police discourage "creep catching."

He brags that his group's work led to charges against a Surrey Mountie. Other chapters' information has led to charges against a school teacher, and in one case, the conviction of a man lured to meet a 12-year-old boy.

Laforge's attitude does not surprise Brendon Brady, who split off from hardcore vigilante groups to form a non-profit organization called Creep Hunters Canada Society.

The sexual abuse survivor tracks and gathers evidence to disrupt child luring but no longer participates in shaming or ambushes, although he gets a lot of pressure from others who do.

"They are so addicted to the feeling of being behind the camera and blasting somebody," said Brady.

He doubts the recent privacy ruling will cool all the shamers because he says some are more hooked on looking heroic than doing what's most effective to prevent child luring.

Creep Hunters Canada Society does not shame or ambush people suspected of child luring, instead the group tracks and gathers information to try to disrupt child abuse situations. (Brendon Brady/Creep Hunters Canada Society)

About the Author

Yvette Brend

Yvette Brend is a CBC Vancouver journalist. Yvette.Brend@CBC.ca @ybrend