The sight of a WDIV-TV (Channel 4) investigative reporter chasing would-be pedophiles down snow-covered streets -- even making one man cry -- may make for shocking television, but it makes for lousy crime fighting, police said.
Last week's WDIV reports on Internet child predators, featuring the ambush tactics of Portland, Oregon-based www.perverted-justice.com, sent many would-be predators farther underground, according to officers with the Wayne County Sheriff's Internet Crimes Unit.
The reports, which aired for several days starting Feb. 6, showed more than a dozen men who had arranged meetings to have sex with what they thought was an underage girl. It turned out the men where chatting with members of the Perverted Justice Web site, and were unexpectedly confronted on camera by Channel 4 reporters.
"We've read some of the chats that the Web site has done, and Wayne County prosecutors have told us that . . . it's unlikely they would sign an arrest warrant based on the techniques used by Perverted Justice," said William Liczbinski, an investigator with the Wayne County Sheriff's Internet Crime Unit. "In fact, three cases that I had set up for arrests were spoiled, and those people will probably get away with it because of the recent publicity about what they do."
The issue is entrapment. Although the Internet crimes unit can respond to predators seeking sex with minors, it cannot initiate the offers. Often, however, it can be hard to determine who initiated contact when dealing with groups like Perverted Justice. Sometimes the vigilantes initiate the contact, police say, hindering prosecutions of such cases. Kevin Dietz, the investigative reporter who did the story, said Tuesday that he's confident his latest effort helped parents understand how large an issue cyber predators have become.
Approximately one in five children on the Internet have received a sexual solicitation on-line, according to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va. Further, less than 10 percent of these solicitations were reported to authorities.
"Parents aren't going to be able to count on the police to catch all these guys," Dietz said. "I think our report could possibly affect some ongoing cases, but it is more important to let the public be aware that the problem is as big as it is."
Numerous e-mail requests for an interview with the founders of Perverted Justice were not returned.
A controversial Web site by its own admission, Perverted Justice thrives on exposing would-be Internet predators and posting their photos and previous criminal history, if available. It encourages visitors to avoid initiating contact with suspected predators and to call police if they suspect they've come across one.
A spokesperson for Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said the Sheriff's Department is currently investigating the cases featured in the WDIV report.
"After their investigation is completed, we will make a determination on what warrants they issue," said Maria Miller, press secretary for Worthy.
But Wayne County Sheriff Warren Evans said he knows of "no hard investigation" of Internet predators as a result of the TV news report. He added that once the department receives a copy of the videotape, it will look into the matter.
"For every predator we catch, there are roughly 100 other people that are engaging in predatory behavior on the Internet," Evans said.
Macomb County Sheriff Mark Hackel said the TV report was "helpful" in terms of making people aware of the problem. But he warned that vigilantes don't necessarily have the qualifications to conduct an operation that would eventually lead to an arrest, adding: "We don't have the public monitoring speeders on the road."
Hackel said in the next few weeks he plans to start the Reserve Internet Enforcement Officers unit specifically to deal with cyber predators. The unit will be made up of four Sheriff's Department reservists who will be overseen by a full-time deputy.
Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard said the TV report was a "rude awakening" for some parents, one he hopes will get them more involved in what their kids are doing on and off the Internet. He added that the report may have slowed some ongoing cases, but he doesn't believe any of his cases were compromised.
"But my concerns . . . we follow very specific guidelines and rules of evidence, and I don't know what these people do or don't do," Bouchard said, referring to Perverted Justice.
Catching bad guys is hard enough in the real world. But nabbing them in cyberspace can be a slippery undertaking when dealing with computer-savvy predators adept at staying in the shadows. And preying on children through the Internet isn't just a crime committed by outcasts: Teachers, lawyers, doctors and religious leaders from Michigan and other states have been arrested and convicted.
Of the 56 predators the Wayne County sheriff's Internet unit has arrested since its inception in 1998 -- all of them convicted -- all of the perpetrators have been men, with an average age of 31 and usually white.
Liczbinski and his fellow officerssay they understand the sentiment behind groups like Perverted Justice. But their efforts can compromise law enforcement's ability to get a handle on what is fast becoming a problem of epidemic proportions.
"In the short term, what these Web sites are doing might be good," Liczbinski said. "But in the long run, I believe they are doing a bad thing. They should work with law enforcement and let investigators work these people and put them in jail where they belong."