Officers are urging "reckless" vigilantes to leave catching these kinds of criminals to the police after a rise in online child abuse activist groups across the country.
In North Yorkshire, they say there have been several times when people have live-streamed or posted videos on social media while confronting individuals they believe are involved in grooming children online.
This is usually after using a ‘decoy’ victim – when an adult pretends to be a child online – to interact with potential suspects.
The groups tend to call the police during the confrontation and when social media posts have already been issued but officers say this is generally far too late to prevent hampering the course of justice and also poses a serious risk of harm to everyone involved, including the group members themselves.
Detective Inspector Paula Eccles, from North Yorkshire Police’s Safeguarding Team, said: “The police service does not endorse online child abuse activist groups and we will not work with them.
"Unlike our highly-trained officers in the Online Abuse and Exploitation Team and the Digital Forensics Unit, they operate without any procedures to keep people safe.
“Accused people can become vulnerable to self-harm and there are cases around the country of people dying by suicide because of the action of such groups.
“Innocent family members can also feel threatened during the confrontations and subsequent harassment, which is a terrible situation to have forced upon them.
“Another grave concern is that some of the activity of these groups is a cover for crimes like blackmail and extortion.
“There is no way of making sure that these groups act on reliable evidence and we have seen instances of the wrong people being targeted such as vulnerable adults. This creates unnecessary anguish and diverts vital police resources away from other victims.
“The standard of evidence that is gathered is also often poor, there are issues with legal disclosure, and the way the groups share their evidence publicly online before it has been tested at court.
“Some evidential issues can even cause cases to collapse. This is completely unacceptable.
"Our specialist police teams have the expertise and experience to carry out thorough, complex and intelligence-led investigations, as well as preparing evidence that can stand up to scrutiny by the Crown Prosecution Service and ultimately presented before a court of law to determine guilt or innocence.
“There is simply no place for reckless vigilante practices when it comes to bringing serious offenders to justice.”
Anyone with concerns about a child's safeguarding should call police on 101 or Crimestoppers, where information can be passed on anonymously, via 0800 55511.
Victims who would prefer not to go direct to the police and are not in immediate danger can contact Bridge House, North Yorkshire’s Sexual Assault Referral Centre, on 0330 223 0362 or by email at [email protected]