Social media and the mob

Thirty kids walk into a 7-Eleven. Sounds like the beginning of a joke, but few would laugh at what surveillance cameras captured next. The video, released by Montgomery Co. (Md.) police, shows the mob entering the convenience store early on a Saturday...


Thirty kids walk into a 7-Eleven. Sounds like the beginning of a joke, but few would laugh at what surveillance cameras captured next. The video, released by Montgomery Co. (Md.) police, shows the mob entering the convenience store early on a Saturday morning and making off with $450 worth of drinks, candy and snacks.

Referred to as “flash mob robberies,” “flash robs” or “mob robs,” the organized lootings are essentially the exact opposite of a “flash mob,” which is a choreographed dance routine in a public place, though both events typically follow the same MO. Instead, the chaotic ‘flash rob’ gatherings usually involve theft, criminal damage to property, and sometimes violence. Like the word “flash,” the suspects assemble as quickly as they disperse. Collaborators agree upon a time and a place, usually via social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook, and overwhelm shop owners by their sheer numbers and speed.

Flash robs are still somewhat rare occurrences. The mob that descended upon the 7-Eleven in Germantown on Aug. 15, 2011, wasn’t particularly violent, but it did stun the unsuspecting community. Today anyone can search the online footage and skim comments from the peanut gallery. But perhaps the most useful item to review would be the manner in which Montgomery Co. reacted to this event. That is, how law enforcement utilized surveillance tools, community relationships and social media outlets to their advantage with the hope of preventing future incidents. Smile, you’re on camera

Immediately after the video circulated, phones started ringing. Teachers, parents and students called up and identified 90 percent of the kids involved, and officers made arrests. Montgomery Co. police then joined the area school’s principal and had students watch the footage.

“Years ago when they would put out a picture of a bank robber, the picture was always so blurry and grainy and you could never really tell who the person was,” says Cmdr. Luther Reynolds from the fifth district of the Montgomery Co. PD. “Now the quality of these cameras … is such that people look at the video.”

Government and business have come a long way in surveillance tech. Where legacy VHS cameras lack the ability to zoom in on a face, legions of new and forthcoming equipment is both more accurate and affordable. With digital systems, investigators can easily zoom in on a face, T-shirt or tattoo.

The store’s surveillance footage did more than document what happened that day; it stripped away the anonymity of each participant, and a teachable moment was born. Reynolds recalls “We [asked], ‘Is this what you want to be reflective of the youth in our community?’ And of course, 99 percent of youth were really embarrassed by what happened. There was a lot of positive peer pressure, a lot of engagement of the youth as to how egregious this was.”

After the dust settled, the Maryland agency thought more about what they could do to improve security in other areas of the community. Police Chief Thomas Manger spoke with elected officials about the need for additional cameras in areas of heavy foot traffic—not only as a crime deterrent, but as an investigative tool. Manger particularly hopes to build up a series of cameras on Germantown’s busiest streets that are all connected, and can be monitored by individuals in a joint command center.

“It’s a force-multiplier,” says Manger, drawing from command and operation centers he has seen in places like Great Britain and Israel. Only he’d be starting from scratch. The county currently does not have cameras in its downtown area of Silver Spring, but police are able to access cameras within the business community to investigate specific cases.

The new underground consortium

Still, there’s more to a mob than what comes through the camera’s lens. Nowadays, the crime itself often takes shape on smartphones, iPads and laptops.

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