Sunday 16 December 2018

'Train Garda reserves to hunt online sex predators'

Security expert calls for volunteer teams to fight 'tsunami' of abusers preying on children

(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Garda reserves should be trained and deployed to hunt down online sexual predators, a leading security expert has urged.

Jim Gamble, a former head of Special Branch in Northern Ireland, said that if police forces don't have the resources to track online predators then volunteer reserves could do the work instead.

He was speaking as self-styled "hunters" of sexual predators that operate across the UK declared they had moved into Ireland. Last week, the group, Silent Justice, confronted two men in Drogheda they alleged had tried to groom children online. It was the Belfast-based group's third sting in Ireland. The previous month, members of the group confronted a man in Kildare who they claimed was about to meet someone he thought was a 14-year-old girl. Gardai are now investigating the allegations against all three men.

Concerns were raised about their vigilante tactics after a man in Co Antrim took his own life just days after he was confronted by the group in August. Members pose as children online and wait for sexual predators to make contact. They then confront the suspects in sting operations, or track them down, posting a recording of the encounter on Facebook, and passing their evidence to police. Gamble, who is also the former chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, said: "Many of the people who are currently involved in this activity shouldn't be.

"What I am saying is in order to prevent inappropriate individuals from having any kind of power over the lives of others but to allow us to deal with the tsunami of predators online, we need to think more creatively."

He said that volunteer police officers such as Garda reserves and "special constables" in the UK who work for free, should be vetted, psychologically assessed and trained in detecting online predators.

"Garda reserves provide absolutely the platform to do this. There are a handful of police officers across Ireland and the UK dealing with this. If you want to combat the numbers that are involved, if you want to create a credible and active deterrent, then you have to engage your citizens' army and you have to do that in a way that is legitimate, so you have to ensure that people have the right character, the right training," he said. "I was a police officer for 30 years and I have the utmost respect for the gardai. If they decided to grasp this initiative, we could make Ireland the most hostile environment ever, or anywhere, for a predator to try and engage the child."

He said the training would take two weeks. "We either ignore it at our peril and the situation gets worse, and vigilantism becomes an issue where you actually begin to see the dark side of it," he said.

He said there are "well-intentioned decent people who through frustration at seeing children being hurt and too little being done, have responded in the way they have. Those are the type of people who would be able to join the system I am proposing.

"I was in charge of undercover policing for many, many years. This is not undercover policing. This is simply going into an environment and masquerading as a 13-year-old. You don't need to become involved as an agent provocateur, you don't need to create a sting. You simply need to sit and wait. Such is the depth of the predator population on line that someone will appear and engage you."

Mr Gamble said predators come from all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds but share certain traits such as "the ability to hide in plain sight". He added: "We either ignore it at our peril and the situation gets worse, and vigilantism becomes an issue where you actually begin to see the dark side of it."

The leader of Silent Justice, a man who uses the pseudonym James O'Neill, didn't respond to queries from the Sunday Independent last week. In past interviews, he said the justice system "doesn't work - that's why I do what I do. These individuals destroy children's lives so I'm going to destroy theirs".

The work of groups targeting online predators has proliferated in the UK. According to figures obtained by the BBC, such groups have helped to provide evidence in around 44pc of court cases involving predator suspects.

Sunday Independent

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