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December 2011 · Volume 93 · Number 11

Cover Story

Flash Mobs: The Newest Threat to Local Governments

by Linda Kiltz

Armed with cellphones and connected through social media sites, young people banding in groups have been rushing into stores or assaulting bystanders in a slew of “flash mob” incidents across the United States, leaving police and public officials scrambling to curtail crimes associated with these spontaneous assemblies. Although most flash mobs are harmless, with pointless acts that involve dancing, freezing on the spot, or some other activity, their potential to become sites for criminal and violent behavior should be of concern for law enforcement agencies and local governments.

Generally, flash mobs are groups of people who congregate in public spaces to carry out incongruous acts and leave after a brief period of time. We have seen such groups on YouTube and television advertisements doing everything from dancing and singing, to freezing in place and chirping like birds.

Flash mobs are organized through such viral means as e-mail, text message, Facebook, and word of mouth. Although most flash mobs are harmless, some have become a means for large groups of individuals to conduct crimes ranging from burglaries to assaults.

In the past two years, there have been dozens of incidents of flash mob violence.1 In April 2010, Philadelphia police had to respond to 150 teens converging into a flash mob in a major shopping area of the city. The teens ransacked Macy’s and a convenience store, plus they attacked and damaged a number of taxis.

This past summer, flash mobs reappeared on the streets of Philadelphia, where groups of youths gravitated to a designated location at an appointed time. Once there, they became a mob that gathered force as it roamed the streets, wreaking havoc on businesses while terrifying and sometimes attacking pedestrians.

In June 2011, four men were assaulted by large groups of youth in Chicago, raising fears of flash mobs in the area. In August 2011, hundreds of youth targeted, attacked, and robbed fairgoers at the Wisconsin State Fair near Milwaukee. In London, rioting and looting in August 2011 has been blamed in part on groups of youths using Twitter, mobile phone text messages, and instant messaging on BlackBerry to organize and keep a step ahead of police.

Flash mobs have been around since 2003, but the use of the Internet and mobile phones to organize groups to commit acts of violence is a relatively new phenomenon that has the potential to become a more serious crime and a community safety issue. This article looks at the history of flash mobs and identifies solutions that have been advocated for this growing problem.

Evolution of Flash Mobs

In June 2003, more than 100 people gathered in the home furnishings department of Macy’s in Manhattan. They claimed to be members of a commune living in a warehouse in Williamsburg, and they quizzed the sales associate about a $10,000 “love rug” they wanted to purchase “to play on.”2 After about 10 minutes, they suddenly dispersed as if they had never been there.

This event was the birth of a new urban phenomenon: the so-called flash mob. Defined since at least 2004, a flash mob is described as “a public gathering of complete strangers, organized by the Internet or mobile phone, who perform a pointless act and then disperse again.”3 Their most common incarnations include dancing, freezing in place, pillow fights, singing, silent raves, subway parties, and zombie walks. An Internet search on YouTube will lead to thousands of hits for videos that depict a variety of activities of flash mobs around the world.4

The typical flash mob begins when a person acting as an organizer (usually using a false name to protect anonymity) sends e-mails or text messages to a list of people, inviting them to arrive at a specific place at a certain time and to wait for further instructions. This anonymous organizer serves as the catalyzing force behind the creation of the mob and often invents a set of actions to perform.

When they arrive, participants are usually given instructions on fliers detailing what they should do during the flash mob. Flash mobs generally attract crowds that number anywhere between 40 to several thousand participants and tend to last no longer than 10 minutes.

On February 13, 2009, for example, about 12,000 people participated in a silent dance at one of London’s busiest train stations. At 7:00 p.m., the height of rush hour traffic, thousands of people literally began dancing to their own music on their MP3 players. While the event was meant to be fun, the Liverpool station was forced to close, impacting thousands of commuters.5

The unique aspect of flash mobs is that they are a product of Internet and mobile technologies that make instantaneous personal communication among large groups of people possible. Most flash mobs today are organized through blogs, Internet groups (Yahoo and Google), such electronic groups as Nonsense NYC, and, most recently, such social networking sites as Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter.

Although many advocates of flash mobs argue that these events are merely self-organized entertainment where people can have fun, they have been used as a form of social or political protest and to facilitate such criminal activity as assaults, thefts, vandalism, and disorderly conduct.

Flash Mobs Turned Flash “Robs”

In Germantown, Maryland, it took less than a minute for teenagers to descend on a 7-Eleven, ransack shelves, and make off with hundreds of dollars of merchandise. During the summer of 2011, spontaneous incidents of group violence dubbed flash robs have occurred in Minneapolis, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, and Washington, D.C., among other cities.

Most of these episodes involved groups of 20 to hundreds of young people looting stores or assaulting pedestrians and then running off. The National Retail Federation reported that 79 percent of its members had been victims of multiple-offender crime, and 10 percent of members said they had been targeted by groups of thieves using flash mob tactics in the past year.6

Given the current economic crisis in the United States, it is most likely that flash mob violence will spread to more urban communities and suburbs. Jeff Gardere, a California psychologist who lectures widely on the motivations of young people, believes that part of the reason that flash mobs have become violent is that young people are discontent and bored.

They don’t have jobs. They hear their parents talking about the lack of jobs and the poor economy and are left feeling that their future options are winnowing every day. “This isn’t just in England or Philly or Germantown but everywhere,” said Gardere. “You’ve got a group that feels angry and powerless, and they are trying to assume a sense of power.”7

This sense of powerlessness is part of the motivation behind the Occupy Wall Street protests that started in September 2011 in New York City and are spreading across the nation to such cities as Boston, Chicago, Denver, Seattle, and Washington D.C. While these groups are not flash mobs, they are using social media to organize, communicate, and raise awareness on a number of issues.8 As the use of social media increases, the potential for more flash mobs that are used for political protest and for criminal purposes is likely to increase.

Community Response to Flash Mob Violence

How best to combat the technology-connected crimes—and how far police agencies should reach into private online and mobile phone access—are at the core of a growing debate among police officials, elected leaders, and civil rights activists. Everyone agrees: it’s uncharted territory for law enforcement and local government leaders.

Because flash mobs are an emerging form of crime, it is not clear what power police agencies have to monitor such websites as Facebook and Twitter without violating privacy rights. Although it may be acceptable for them to browse Facebook pages or “tweets” that are available to the public, breaching personal information without a warrant or shutting down cellphone service in anticipation of a crime may encroach on constitutional rights.

Civil rights issues have also been raised in response to elected officials passing legislation criminalizing the use of social media to organize or promote criminal activity without violating free speech rights. Cleveland, Ohio’s city council, for example, passed a law that made it a misdemeanor crime to summon a flash mob using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.

Mayor Frank Jackson vetoed the proposal, saying the ordinance might infringe on residents’ rights.9 Instead of criminalizing the use of social media, the mayor said local government officials should focus their efforts on traditional crime prevention and community-policing strategies.

Law enforcement leaders are closely examining the issue and determining how best to use social media tools and technology to assist in preventing and responding to criminal activity in their communities. Law enforcement agencies can use a combination of such tactics as enforcing strict curfew ordinances, boosting police presence in youth hot spots and gathering places, and monitoring social media websites for flash mobs.

Philadelphia, for example, implemented a 9:00 p.m. weekend curfew for teenagers. Larger police agencies like the Los Angeles Police Department have established a social media unit to monitor these sites. Most local law enforcement agencies, however, are behind the times when it comes to battling flash mobs.

“Part of the challenge is generational. Older officers in management decisions—the ones making decisions—are often not as savvy as younger officers with social media,” said Nancy Kolb, who oversees the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s (IACP) Center for Social Media. Kolb also stated that for many years authorities did not believe flash mobs were a threat.

In a 2010 IACP survey of law enforcement agencies in 48 states, 81 percent of the respondents reported that flash mobs were not a problem in their community.10 More than 70 percent of responding agencies also said they had not identified any goals for officers’ use of such social media tools as Facebook and Twitter.

Sixty-six percent of respondents said they had no training in how to use social media, yet social media can be used to fight crime. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Captain Mike Parker uses social networking sites to help track down criminals, conduct background checks, and identify when flash mob planning is under way.

Using the Internet to disrupt uprisings before they start may be of limited value, however, because privacy settings on Facebook and other sites freeze out police. Also, because of budget cuts, most police departments cannot afford to have officers spend their days tracking potential flash mobs on cellphones or surfing the web in the hope they will uncover a plot.

Instead, local agencies could pool staff and budgets to train officers on how to use social media tools to prevent and investigate a broad range of crimes. Law enforcement agencies also can use social media to engage citizens in crime fighting efforts by reporting when flash mobs are forming and to assist them in identifying suspects in surveillance camera footage.

Police in Maryland were able to identify half of the suspects involved in a flash rob of a 7-Eleven in August 2011 after posting the surveillance camera footage on YouTube and talking with students and teachers at a local high school, who identified the alleged thieves.

Given the lack of resources and expertise on social media, the most practical solution for many agencies will be implementing community-policing strategies. Community policing is a philosophy that supports the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to such public safety issues as crime, social disorder, and fear of crime.

To manage flash mob violence, law enforcement agencies could be encouraged to partner with community organizations, schools, businesses, and neighborhood watch groups to be alert for and report flash mob activity. Patrol officers can be encouraged to build links with the local community, get to know the physical layout and social dynamics and networks of the local area, and foster positive interactions with residents.

Finally, law enforcement organizations could provide education to parents, businesses, and community groups on the dangers of flash mobs and crime prevention strategies.

Difficult to Predict, Interdict, and Control

Recent events have clearly shown that flash mobs have evolved into flash robs and other forms of group violence that must be of concern for local governments. These leaderless, spontaneous organizations that are able to multiply in numbers exponentially using social media are difficult to predict, interdict, and control.

While some community-policing strategies may be effective, local governments will be challenged as they look for long-term solutions to this new form of crime without infringing on civil rights and privacy.

Linda Kiltz, Ph.D., is assistant professor of public administration, Texas A & M–Corpus Christi, Corpus Christi, Texas (linda.kiltz@tamucc.edu).


Endnotes

1 Rick Jervis, “Flash Mobs Pose Challenge to Police Tactics,” USA Today, August 19, 2011, A1.
2 Bill Wasik, “My Crowd: A Report from the Inventor of the Flash Mob,” Harper’s Magazine, March 2006, 56–66.
3 See the evolution of the definition at “Shifted Meanings: Flash Mob,” Oxford Dictionaries, August 25, 2011, http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/08/shifted-meanings-flash-mob.
4 To see a list of activities, visit Flash Mob America, www.flashmobamerica.com/about.
5 BBC News, February 26, 2009, “Rail Police Criticise Flash Mobs,” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/london/7913034.stm.
6 National Retail Federation, Multiple Offender Crimes (Washington, D.C.: NRF, August 2011), www.nrf.com/modules.php?name=News&op=viewlive&sp_id=1167.
7 Ashley Fantz, August 18, 2011, “Police Scramble to Fight Flash-mob Mayhem,” CNN, http://articles.cnn.com/2011-08-18/us/flashmobs.police_1_flash-mob-law-enforcement-police-scramble?_s=PM:US.
8 See Occupy Wall Street web page, http://occupywallst.org.
9 The ordinance passed the city council in July 2011; see “Councilmen Zack Reed Introduces Legislation Prohibiting Improper Use of Social Media to Induce Unruly Flash Mobs,” Cleveland City Council, www.clevelandcitycouncil.org/Home/News/FlashMob/tabid/914/Default.aspx.
10 IACP Center for Social Media Survey, September 2010, http://www.iacpsocialmedia.org/Portals/1/documents/Survey%20Results%20Document.pdf.