Flash Mobs: A New Twist on an Old Problem

photo: image of large crowd at shopping centerThe flash mob phenomenon, which exploits modern communications and social media in particular, has been striking with increasing frequency, bringing with it large-scale street crime and violence. From Chicago to Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles, as well as numerous suburban communities, news stories appear every day about seemingly spontaneous gatherings of people bent on fights, robberies, and general chaos. The challenge of controlling mob violence has existed for centuries, but the speed with which today’s flash mobs can organize, strike, and disburse adds a new twist. Law enforcement agencies and local governments around the world are searching for innovative ways to respond to this new trend of using social media to facilitate street crime. But with constrained resources and ever evolving technology, the answers are not simple.

Addressing any problem successfully begins with understanding it. Flash mobs, reportedly the creation of senior editor Bill Wasik of Harper’s magazine, have been around since 2003.1 According to the New York Times, it “started as a kind of playful social experiment meant to encourage spontaneity and big gatherings to temporarily take over commercial and public areas simply to show that they could.” 2 Many of the early flash mobs reported in the news, while not without costs to local governments, were peaceful and often humorous acts of public performance—i.e., dance routines and pillow fights.

Central to the flash mob’s uniqueness was the use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook as well as texting to plan, organize, and execute flash mob activities. We have likely all seen the commercial where a man spontaneously starts dancing by himself in the middle of Grand Central Station only to discover when his cell phone beeps that the flash mob performance time was changed, but his cell carrier didn’t deliver his text message in time to save him from the embarrassment of dancing alone.

Though this peaceful flash mob movement parodied in the commercial remains alive and well, the flash mob concept has evolved, morphing into a new form of criminal and often violent behavior. Flash mobs have become more and more likely to grow unruly, leading to vandalism, assaults, and worse. Their use as a tactic for retail theft is also on the rise: In July of this year, the National Retail Federation polled retailers around the country to gauge the impact of multiple offender crimes. “Ten percent of the 106 companies polled reported being victimized by multiple offender criminals who used flash mob tactics in the past 12 months.”3 Even more disturbing, half of these companies experienced two to five incidents in the same period.

This past spring and summer season brought us a number of high profile flash mob incidents that received national attention and raised community concerns from coast to coast:

  • In Washington, D.C., more than a dozen teenagers overwhelmed patrons and staff in an upscale Connecticut Avenue clothing store, making off with about $20,000 in merchandise.
  • An incident in Chicago, Illinois, forced the closing of a McDonald’s restaurant for three hours after a group of about 70 teens descended on the store, causing a disturbance.
  • Suburban Montgomery County, Maryland, saw a group of about 28 teens storm a Germantown 7-11 store, stripping shelves of items in a mass theft. The incident took only about 60 seconds.
  • In Los Angeles, thousands of ravers forced the closure of streets during rush hour when they gathered at a Hollywood cinema in response to a tweet that a DJ was hosting a block party.
  • The July 4th celebration in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb, was disrupted by a flash mob of more than 1,000 youth who started fighting.

Communities are beginning to respond. Thus far, the most common strategy to fight the flash mob problem has been the use of curfews and an increased police presence in vulnerable parts of the community.4 In response to flash mob activity in the downtown core, Philadelphia’s Mayor, Michael A. Nutter, signed an executive order in August that modified the cities curfew law requiring minors under the age of 18 to be off the streets by 9:00 PM on Fridays and Saturdays in targeted enforcement districts. (Prior to the order, there was a midnight curfew for 18 year olds and those under 13 were to be off the street by 10:00 PM.)

The city realized that curfews and patrol alone would not be a successful long term solution, and would in fact bring potential costs to both the department and the community. Consequently, Mayor Nutter also announced increased sanctions for parents whose children participate in flash mob violence, and offered extended hours of operation for many parks and recreation centers providing teens someplace to go other than the street.5

Providing alternative gathering opportunities for youth is one way to attempt to prevent the flash mob from forming in the first place, but if technology plays a part in the creation of the problem, it may also offer tools to assist in the solution. For example, the New York City Police Department has established a Social Media Unit, the first of its kind in the nation. The unit monitors social networking sites including MySpace, Twitter, and Facebook to detect and keep track of potential problems that may be possibly prevented or mitigated. Turning the technological tables on the perpetrators, the Montgomery County, Maryland Police Department has taken advantage of its reach through YouTube to identify flash mob participants. Several suspects were identified and arrested after police posted surveillance footage from the Germantown 7-11 incident on YouTube and asked for the public’s help in identifying them.

Technological approaches to combating flash mobs can also come with risks, however. In early August, in response to intelligence that mass protests were being organized as a reaction to a police-involved shooting, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority (BART) turned off cell phone service in their facilities. While BART has stood by its decision, several digital rights groups have filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) arguing that the action violated the U.S. Communications Act and the First Amendment’s protection of free-speech rights.

Traditional law enforcement responses such as curfews, directed patrols, and increased penalties for curfew violations are likely to remain a part of any immediate response to mob violence, regardless of the means by which the mob was organized. The question is, what approaches will have the biggest impact on the ability of law enforcement to mitigate or even prevent the flash mob phenomenon? It is too early to tell how investments geared toward surveillance of social media sights will work out, but even if they prove effective, one thing is certain. Without coordination and cooperation with citizens and businesses, flash mobs will continue to strain law enforcement resources and endanger our communities.

-Karl Bickel
Senior Policy Analyst
The COPS Office

-Deborah Spence
Supervisory Social Science Analyst
The COPS Office

The COPS Office has recently partnered with the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) on a project that will examine the role of social media in organizing incidents of civil unrest. On October 13, 2011, the COPS Office and PERF will host a forum on this topic in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Chiefs from affected cities, along with representatives from social media companies and other private industry, will be meeting to discuss recent strategies and tactics agencies have employed to respond to disruptive and violent flash mobs. Chief law enforcement executives will be able to share ideas on how to maintain the safety and security of demonstrators, bystanders, and their own police officers, while ensuring that citizens are freely able to exercise their first amendment rights.

1Urbina, Ian. 2010. “Mobs are Born as Word Grows by Text Message,” New York Times, March 24.
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/25/us/25mobs.html accessed 8/25/2011.

2Ibid.

3NRF White Paper. 2011. “Multiple Offender Crimes: Preparing for and Understanding the Impact of Their Tactics.” www.nrf.com.

4Jonsson, Patrick. 2011. “ ‘Flash mob’ crimes: How good are police at tracking down culprits?” The Christian Science Monitor, August 22.  http://csmonitor.com/layout/set/print/contemt/view/print/404608 ,
accessed 8/25/2011.

5Goodman, J. David. 2001. “Philadelphia Fights Violent Flash Mobs With Curfews.” New York Times, August 10. http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/08/10/philadelphia=fights-violent-flash-mobs-with-curfews, accessed 8/25/2011.

 

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