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Inside Dateline: To Catch a Predator III

Ron Knight provided security for Chris Hansen and the crew of “To Catch a Predator.” Read his blog entry on the safety considerations when confronting potential predators.

January 31, 2006 |

Ron Knight provided security for Chris Hansen and the crew of “To Catch a Predator,” on all three hidden camera investigations.

Knight is a retired NYPD Lieutenant who spent 23 years with the force. He currently works with NBC security, and also has his own security company, “Roundtable Solutions.” Below is his blog entry on his experience with “Dateline” during the investigation.

Providing security for “To Catch a Predator” (Ron Knight, president, Roundtable Solutions Inc.)

When Donna Johnson, Dateline associate producer, called and asked me if I could provide a security person to assist on “To Catch a Predator,” it sounded fascinating to me. I immediately said “yes.” In fact, I was more than happy to do it myself.

I believe what “Dateline” is doing in this type of story is a public service. My children are both adults, but I have a niece and nephew that are young teens. I worry about their exposure to these predators. As a former detective, I consider myself a student of human nature, and this was an opportunity to observe people in such a unique situation.

When those men entered the house they appeared to be in the process of committing a crime. With very few exceptions, they could have been your neighbor or co-worker or friend.  The entire experience was very compelling.

Safety precautions
One of the first things I do when I get to the house is to go through the kitchen. This is where much of the action takes place – and the kitchen is always the location where interviews are conducted by Chris.

I pretty much sanitize the kitchen of anything that could possibly be used as a weapon – I go through all the drawers, and remove all the knives and anything on the counter top.

I also see that there is nothing that would obstruct the subject’s means of egress. If he wants to leave, he can.

The thing to keep in mind is this: The people who are coming to the house are probably thinking of committing a felony and they are about to be confronted with that fact—by a person that has the appearance of an authority figure.

One of the first things they tell you in the police academy is that you never know what a person brings to a particular situation.

When you’re a cop and you do a car stop, you may be stopping someone for running a red light, but you don’t know if he just committed a crime or has a warrant out on him. You just don’t know what kind of baggage a person is bringing. The house is similar in that sense. You always have to be conscious of safety issues because you don’t know the person’s situation or frame of mind.

In the last investigation in California, the police were in a trailer next door. It was, of course, reassuring for me to know that I had assistance that close if we needed it.

A day at the house
The day begins by checking the bulletin board in the Perverted-Justice room. This is the room where they chat with potential predators, or communicate with other Perverted-Justice decoys around the country. The bulletin board has the schedule of men who say they are coming that day.  In some instances, Perverted-Justice has the pictures that the man sends to “the kid.” They would also advise us if they have been able to develop a profile on the subject—if he is coming to see a boy or a girl, etc.

There is also the Tech Room, where the men who install and operate the hidden cameras and microphones work. These guys are the best in the business and I wish I could have used them when I worked in the Rackets Bureau.  I was in constant communication with them, and they were able to give us a heads -up when subjects were approaching.

Chris and I go over how we would approach things from a security standpoint. During our down time, in between visits from these men, we’d critique and talk about how things went, and how we could do things safer.

When the man arrives and goes through the kitchen door, I’m usually less than 10 feet away from Chris. I can hear the whole conversation, and there’s also a monitor so I’m watching everything from more than one camera view. If the man is making a move, or is trying to take something out of his back pocket, I can see it. I would always be aware of any potentially dangerous situation.

In my mind, there are two moments when I need to be extra alert: The first instance is when the subject is in the kitchen and Chris Hansen walks out. The man sees that it’s not the kid they thought they were meeting up with. There’s always that “fight or flight” moment – you can see it in their eyes – and they have to decide what to do.  I would be as close to Chris as I could be at that moment—closer to Chris than the man usually is.

The next real moment of concern during the interview is when Chris tells him who he is. The camera crew then steps out, and I always come out with them.

You have to realize how traumatic it is for these men – not that I have any sympathy for them. Their life changed in that time period when they were in that house. If you look at the three possibilities that exist when Chris walks out that door, it could be that Chris is (1) the police, which is bad because they  might get arrested for soliciting a child on the Internet, or  (2) it’s a parent or relative, and they might get a severe beating for soliciting his child, or (3) the worst possible thing, I would think, is that it’s “Dateline.” And the entire viewing public is going to know that they were in that house to meet up with a child who is home alone.

They might be thinking, “Everybody is going to see me on TV.” It’s traumatic for them and there’s a lot going through their minds. You don’t know what they’re thinking, and you always have to be prepared for the worst.  They may decide “This is the end of my life,” and maybe, “I want to take everybody with me.” My job is to be on alert all the time.

If you saw the footage of the confrontation with the rabbi from Virginia, he knew he was in trouble from the moment Chris stepped out—but he didn’t know how much trouble he was in right away. That is, until he found out that he was being filmed for Dateline. 

Have I ever felt sorry for them?
What’s been remarkable to witness is Chris’ ability to have these people talk to him. He has this presence of an authority figure. In some of the initial confrontations, the guys look like they were going to run, but Chris manages to get them to stay and talk. Chris can get them to follow his requests (to sit down on the chair; or put their hands on the table), and to answer his questions.

What is notable is that these men, from all three shows, could be someone you know. All of them have excuses and explanations – and sometimes, not often, I’ve felt sorry for them. There was a young kid, a 19-year-old college kid who showed up at the California house. He did something really stupid and he knew it. It’s going to affect him for the rest of his life—he’s going to be  a  registered sex offender. That’s a life-changing mistake.

On the other end of the scale, there are those who are predators. If you read the chat logs, these men “groom” kids. Their chat logs were perfect examples of a predator stalking his prey. (You can go to the PJ Web site and read the actual chats.)

It’s a different world we live in today. It’s a parent’s responsibility to know and understand the dangers.  And not knowing how to monitor kids’ Internet use is no excuse. When I was kid growing up in Brooklyn, my parents were concerned about me playing in the street. My mother never learned how to drive—but that didn’t stop her from keeping me safe on the streets. 

It was a fascinating experience and I am proud to have been a small part of this story. Just reading the comments of viewers, it is clear that these stories are having an impact on how parents are communicating these issues to their kids. That’s a good thing.