Photo by philippe leroyer via Flickr
Flashmobs have been trouble for police in a number of cities for about a year. The New York Times sums them up nicely:
It started innocently enough seven years ago as an act of performance art where people linked through social-networking Web sites and text messaging suddenly gathered on the streets for impromptu pillow fights in New York, group disco routines in London, and even a huge snowball fight in Washington.
But these so-called flash mobs have taken a more aggressive and raucous turn [in Philadelphia] as hundreds of teenagers have been converging downtown for a ritual that is part bullying, part running of the bulls: sprinting down the block, the teenagers sometimes pause to brawl with one another, assault pedestrians or vandalize property.
Most recently, getting press in Philadelphia for being, as Mayor Michael Nutter called them, “silly but dangerous stuff,” flashmobs are perhaps more accurately a mix of passion, boredom, and lack of purpose. They could be compared to last decade’s raves, but for one key difference: raves took place in abandoned warehouses and fields, well away from businesses or homes. Flashmobs tend to be centrally located, and thus affect a city’s quality of life.
How Police Respond
In Philadelphia, the answer is, well, enforcement, which means curfew. Holding parents legally responsible. Limiting student transit passes in the evenings. Enlisting the FBI’s help to monitor social networks.
On the prevention side, public service announcements are part of the mix, and some community groups are calling for better youth programs and job opportunities, along with parental support. The Times article notes, however:
Financing for [violence prevention] programs has dropped 93 percent to $1.2 million in this year’s budget compared with $16 million in 2002. City financing for such programs has dropped to $1.9 million in the past three years compared with $4.1 million from 1999 through 2002, a 53 percent drop.
Could There Be a Better Response?
This article in Philly.com explores reasons for flashmobbing, closing with a high school senior quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The riot is the language of the unheard,” and quoting Darryl Coates, executive director of the Philadelphia Anti-Drug/Anti-Violence Network, as saying: “If they’re going to a social happening, we have to ambush the event, and put protective measures into play at the event to control crowds and behaviors.”
Obviously, this would take far more planning than the word “ambush” implies. It would require police to talk to young people to find out why they participate in flashmobs. It would involve careful analysis of past flashmobs, including timelines and patterns of movement. Police would have to involve community groups, perhaps even on a level similar to the CeaseFire program in Chicago. And during an event, the level of police organization would have to be on a par with a typical Incident Command structure.
And if they can make it all as spontaneous and fun as the flashmob itself? So much the better . . . and the real challenge.
I’ve blogged before about Miami-Dade PD’s “Beat the Heat” program. Drag racing is not unlike flashmobbing in terms of its danger or, for that matter, its origins. Its biggest difference is the number of people involved. So the point is not for police to start flashmobs themselves, but instead to make the unheard, heard. And to help them find purpose.
How can your agency channel all that teenage energy into something more positive?
Christa M. Miller is founder and co-author of Cops 2.0. A freelance trade journalist turned content creator and public relations strategist, she has specialized in public safety issues for the past eight years. She resides in Greenville, SC and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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