The internet age has brought a whole range of problems to go along with the marvels of convenience and efficiency. One of these problems stems from the “connectivity” so often touted as a benefit of social networks. In this case, the connectivity in question is the ease with which sexual predators can locate and victimize potential prey, especially children. No crime is more universally reviled than the sexual predation of children, and so the public is generally reassured when they hear of police operations that target online predators.
Even these operations, however, come with questions. What if there were no children involved and no real predation took place? What if the “predators” were actually fairly normal guys with no history of deviance or criminality, who were lured into legally compromising positions by police? Should these operations still be reassuring to the general public?
Since 2015, Washington State patrol officers have been running an operation code-named Net Nanny. The sting operation uses male officers posing as underage girls online and photos of younger female police officers to lure men into meeting them for sex. Roughly 300 men have been arrested in these operations in Washington, and even though no child was involved and there was no physical contact between anyone, these men have been charged with attempted rape of a child, a crime that carries 10 years to life in prison.
Most of those arrested do not fit the standard profile of a sexual predator. Most have no felony record, over 90% have no history of violent crime, and, most tellingly, 89% did not have child pornography, which is usually a strong prediction of predatory behavior.
Nationally, there are statistics that follow the trend of these in Washington. In a 2017 study, 87% of men convicted in stings like Net Nanny had no record of prior, concurrent, or subsequent convictions. These numbers are echoed in the comments of Dr. Richard Packard, past president of the Washington state chapter of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, who noted that perhaps 15% of the men arrested in these stings pose a “moderate to high risk.” As for the rest, “the vast majority don’t need to be in prison to keep society safe.”
Many of the men arrested are, in the words of Washington state’s sex-offender advisory board’s Dr. Michael O’Connell, “... pathetic, lonely people.” Men like 20-year-old Jace Hambrick, who saw a photo of what he thought looked like a grown woman (she was a 24-year-old police officer) claiming to be underage as some sort of role-playing fantasy. Dr. Kenneth Chapman, who cut off contact with a woman who proposed an incestuous threesome with her underage daughter but was repeatedly called and texted by police seeking to lure him back.
That these men took steps to initiate real-world contact is undeniable, and those steps demonstrate an astonishing lack of judgment, but do they merit prison sentences comparable to those given to predators who actually rape children? In Washington state, the average sentence for those caught up in stings is longer than those given to men convicted of child rape. The rationale of prosecutors is that they want to spare child victims the trauma of a trial, but according to Tacoma prosecutor Coreen Schnepf, “Where we don’t have a victim, it allows us to be able to prosecute child predators in a different fashion.”
According to State Police, the rationale for operations like Net Nanny is very simple. First, they are efficient. In 2015, Captain Roger Wilbur outlined in an email that while typical arrests cost hundreds of man-hours and may only result in a single conviction, Net Nanny costs about $2,500 per arrest. “Considering the high level of potential offense, there is a meager investment that pays huge dividends.”
Secondly, there is the inescapable reality that the men arrested took affirmative steps toward having sex with a child. State Police unabashedly label these men as “dangerous sexual predators” and contend that people arrested in stings are as dangerous as those caught actually committing rape. Schnepf is quick to add that a lack of criminal history is not proof of innocence: “It really does not give a full picture of who these people are.”
Lastly, stings like Net Nanny offer police an excellent opportunity to trumpet success in an area of criminal behavior that is notoriously difficult to crack. Critics, however, counter that the stings are more public relations stunt than successful policy. Martina Vandenberg, founder and president of the Human Trafficking Legal Center, said the stings are a waste of resources that “have not helped release one victim or child. My feeling is they should be doing real cases with real children.”
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