Published: 08:46, 19 April 2017
Police have warned against vigilantism after a series of confrontations between self-styled "paedophile hunters" and suspected sex offenders.
Over the past few days, The Hunted One group has streamed live footage of members pouncing on several alleged sexual predators following undercover stings.
But now, the head of Kent Police’s public protection unit has spoken of the force's "significant concerns" about people taking the law into their own hands.
Chief Superintendent Thomas Richards said: "We would strongly advise against getting involved in, or setting up activities to entrap those suspected of intending to commit offences.
"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."
Ch Supt Richards said keeping children safe is a "top priority" for Kent Police, which has specialist paedophile online investigation and child sexual exploitation teams.
He added: "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."
The warning comes just days after violence broke out during an incident involving “paedophile hunters” at Bluewater.
Members of the group known as The Hunted One approached a suspected sex offender near a car park at the shopping centre on Sunday afternoon and streamed it live on Facebook, attracting 340,000 views.
The video appeared to show some people who had turned up to watch attempting to attack the man, forcing security staff to intervene.
The Hunted One was involved in two other incidents on Saturday, one at Bearsted railway station near Maidstone and another outside Chatham Football Club in Maidstone Road, Chatham, with both leading to arrests.
A 47-year-old man from Gillingham was arrested at the station and bailed until Saturday, May 6, and a 69-year-old man from Luton arrested at Chatham was bailed until Thursday, May 4.
"We would strongly advise against getting involved in, or setting up activities to entrap those suspected of intending to commit offences" - Ch Supt Thomas Richards
The Hunted One often posts a recorded video to accompany social media posts about its activities, but the incidents over the weekend were among the first to be broadcast live.
People have posted comments on the The Hunted One’s Facebook page advising against “live stings” in future following the violence at Bluewater on Sunday, and a statement from the group followed this week.
It reads: "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."
The Hunted One has amassed almost 70,000 fans on Facebook since it launched, with previous cases across Kent, including another at Bluewater last year leading to a five-year jail term.
Mark McKenna, 38, of High Street, Northfleet, was duped by the group into believing he could have sex with a young girl and arranged a meeting at the shopping centre, only to be arrested by police after The Hunted One tipped them off.
Following the Bluewater confrontation on Sunday, Mirza Mispa Beg, 29, of no fixed address, was charged with grooming. He was due to appear at Medway Magistrates' Court yesterday.
Police say awareness among children about the dangers of meeting strangers has grown considerably and incidents where children meet adults in these circumstances are "extremely rare".
Anyone with information or concerns about online grooming should contact police on 101 or Kent Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.
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