Is Your Campus Prepared For Flash Mobs?

Community policing, tip lines and video surveillance can help, but how much?

Until recently, “flash mob” was a rather benign term. It referred to a group of individuals who would suddenly assemble in a public place (like a mall) to perform a silly dance or some other goofy act (such as a pillow fight) and then disperse. All of this would be done for the purpose of having fun.

Sounds rather cute, right? Not anymore.

The riots that occurred this summer in London demonstrate how this seemingly harmless activity could turn into a big, deadly problem. As I write this, nearly 1,200 people – some as young as 11 years old – have been arrested in connection with the U.K.‘s recent civil unrest.

The United States has also experienced the dark side of flash mobs. This summer, a family-oriented July 4 fireworks show in a Cleveland suburb, for example, devolved into chaos when as many as 1,000 teenagers showed up to the event and started fighting. Philadelphia, too, has experienced more than its fair share of flash mob violence – so much so that in August it implemented a 9 p.m. curfew on Fridays and Saturdays for minors. So far at least, it appears that the curfews have worked in curbing flash mob activity in the city.

U.K. Riots Could Prompt Escalation of U.S. Flash Mob Activity

As bad as the U.S. flash mob activity has been so far, some believe that the civil unrest in England could inspire even more criminal activity here on the other side of the pond.

“American kids are watching what happened in the U.K. and they are saying, ‘We can do that and we can do it better,’” retired Cleveland SWAT Sergeant Bob O’Brien tells me.

Usually, organizers of flash mobs mobilize teenagers and young adults through social media sites. Via Twitter and Facebook, they designate a time and place (such as a store or festival) where the flash mob will congregate and either steal merchandise, attack innocent civilians, vandalize property or all three. Right now, the participants in these incidents are young and without much direction. Many get involved because they are swept up in the excitement of it all. I’d hate to think of what could happen if more sophisticated criminal organizations used the flash mob tactic to achieve more sinister objectives. 

Related Article: Changing Game Day Culture

To a certain extent, college campuses have been dealing with this phenomenon for quite some time. For example, it’s not uncommon for a student party near campus that is supposed to have 50 people attending to suddenly have 500 people show up. The 450 uninvited guests find out about the event through Facebook or Twitter, and the party organizers don’t know who they are and have no way of managing them. Concerts, post-game celebrations and outdoor festivals can be even more challenging.

Some Traditional Policing Solutions Can Be Effective

For the most part, college and university law enforcement has been using the community policing approach and alcohol enforcement to keep these events orderly. Knowing about and planning for upcoming events, public outreach and working with event organizers and students helps public safety officials prepare for these festivities. They use the information they receive to determine the appropriate level of protection, such as the number of security officers that must be deployed. This approach is still somewhat effective, even in the age of social media.

Anonymous tips lines (phone, text and Internet) are other excellent ways law enforcement can enlist the public’s help in keeping track of planned criminal activity.

Fixed and mobile video surveillance can also be deployed to monitor events while they are happening. If crimes are committed, the images can be used to investigate incidents and prosecute suspects.

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About the Author

robin hattersley headshot

Robin has been covering the security and campus law enforcement industries since 1998 and is a specialist in school, university and hospital security, public safety and emergency management, as well as emerging technologies and systems integration. She joined CS in 2005 and has authored award-winning editorial on campus law enforcement and security funding, officer recruitment and retention, access control, IP video, network integration, event management, crime trends, the Clery Act, Title IX compliance, sexual assault, dating abuse, emergency communications, incident management software and more. Robin has been featured on national and local media outlets and was formerly associate editor for the trade publication Security Sales & Integration. She obtained her undergraduate degree in history from California State University, Long Beach.

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