Vancouver police say they arrested 47 men for trying to buy sex from underage teens during a two-month undercover sting that appears to be taken from the vigilante pedophile hunting playbook. Seven men are now facing charges, including a school trustee, teacher, and firefighter, police say.
On Wednesday deputy police chief Laurence Rankin told media that Project Serrated and Project Steadfast aimed to target johns preying on girls aged 15 to 17. Detectives in the investigation posed as underage teens on escort listings and social media platforms and communicated with johns via text message. The cops would settle on a price for sexual services and arrange to meet at a hotel, where the men who showed up were promptly arrested.
“I want to make it clear that these projects were not about sexual activity between two consenting adults. The suspects were actively seeking sex with teenagers,” Rankin said in a statement. “Police will continue to focus their attention on those willing to prey on and exploit young boys and girls.”
Rankin said the arrests happened on nine separate dates between June and November 2018 and involved men from “all walks of life.” So far seven of them have been charged with obtaining for consideration the sexual services of a person under the age of 18 years.
Vancouver police say they’re still working with Crown prosecutors to bring forward more charges.
The sting operation comes after years of conflict with vigilante groups like Creep Catchers, who use similar tactics to publicly shame alleged predators. Police have condemned the groups for getting in the way of investigations, and at least one Metro Vancouver pedo hunter has been jailed for assault. Creep Catchers have also come under fire for targeting people with physical and mental disabilities.
Vancouver police told media the investigation model idea came out of a conference cops attended in Ontario. When asked about Creep Catchers, Rankin told media Project Serrated and Project Steadfast prove undercover tactics like this can actually lead to charges if done properly.
Admittedly, at least one vigilante-style sting has also led to real charges. A group calling themselves Kelowna Creep Hunters posed as a 14-year-old girl and received dick pics and other explicit messages from a sheriff in 2016. Kevin Johnson pleaded guilty to breach of trust, avoiding child luring charges, and was sentenced to four months of house arrest last year.
Despite the legally problematic origin story, Vancouver police echoed something VICE has heard from several vigilantes—that there’s so many predators online, you don’t have to look far to find one.
"It wasn't very difficult,” said Rankin. “We're looking at potentially hundreds of chat streams that were occurring over the social media platforms with the police officers that were posting as teenage girls. They had to turn down people."
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