Protecting children from abuse in all of its forms has always been the remit of the police.
However, that hasn’t prevented new online unions from forming in a bid to catch out and campaign against convicted paedophiles in their communities.
The impact of such groups has been felt in Falkirk district on a number of occasions in recent months, where members have arranged on social media to take to the streets to carry out “peaceful” protests outside the homes of those either believed to be guilty of or convicted of child abuse.
On some occasions, smartphone footage from these protests has been shared on sites such as Facebook.
The Scotland Anti-Predator Alliance (SAPA) and newly-formed Falkirk For Kids organisations are two which have taken part in such campaigns in the region, including last month in Grangemouth.
Given that these demonstrations are organised by members of the public, the ‘vigilantes’ tag is one that has been attributed to these groups — a description which members reject, branding it inaccurate.
Set up in January of this year, SAPA was founded with the intention of safeguarding children by deploying ‘decoys’ to snare individuals who use the internet to prey on young victims.
Billy McClelland, SAPA co-founder, said: “With regards to being called vigilantes, we are far from it. Myself and my team work professionally, with the aim of bringing about successful convictions against those who are targeting our kids.
“These are not the actions of vigilantes, who would just turn up and act violently or aggressively towards the suspect. We don’t.
READ MORE: What is the Scotland Anti-Predator Alliance and how does it operate?
“Our aim is quite simple: to safeguard and protect children by collecting evidence from suspects who have been contacting our decoys.
“The decoys always state the age of the child they are posing as, as soon as possible.
“If the suspect continues the conversation, and it turns sexual, then that can be classed as grooming.
“We pass all evidence gathered on suspects to the police so due process can be done and a case presented to the courts.”
Despite the widespread online attention the protests have received, their organisers disagree with claims the exposure could force such individuals to go into hiding and evade the law.
Mr McClelland added: “I don’t think that would be the case. These suspects think they are smart and won’t be caught. We have seen previously with suspects being investigated that they have actually followed some of the hunting teams’ pages on social media.
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“The police have stated they simply don’t have the manpower or the resources to tackle this problem, so we are doing our very best to help.”
A spokesman for Falkirk For Kids said: “We will be working with the council and the police to make sure these people will not go underground and they will be monitored at all times. Our group is purely out to make people aware and we are in no way associated with vigilante behaviour.”
However, police have urged those responsible to take a step back and let officers get on with their jobs.
Detective Superintendent Elaine Galbraith, Police Scotland’s head of child protection, said: “It’s understandable that people want to protect children from harm but we would ask them not to take the law into their own hands.
“Revealing the identity of suspected offenders can jeopardise the safety of individuals, their families and the wider public.
“Police Scotland is fully committed to the investigation of child abuse using our resources locally and nationally to protect Scotland’s children.
“If you suspect someone may be abusing children online or offline then please contact the police on 999 if you think there is immediate risk of harm, or 101.”