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 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.

“I think that we’re nearer the beginning and the middle in understanding how technology can be used to commit crime, as well as how technology can be used to prevent and make arrests after a crime has been committed,” says Dr. Scott Decker, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University. Decker studies gangs, violence and juvenile justice. His book, “International Handbook of Juvenile Justice,” was published in 2006. Decker says flash mobs like the one that occurred in Germantown are “classic adolescent and juvenile behaviors” as they occur in a group, there’s a group process, and they pull in “fringe kids” who may not normally be involved.

The best security system in the world will not anticipate mob activity before it happens (although some companies are working on this, by building predictive analysis into surveillance programs). That’s where a careful eye on social media comes into play. Last year Decker worked with a team that interviewed over 600 people in five cities who were on probation in gang outreach programs and considered “at-risk” for crime involvement.

“Their adoption of technology over the course of the last couple of years has really been meteoric,” says Decker. “When you see a flash mob and you see it facilitated by technology, particularly Twitter but sometimes Facebook and other social networking sites, it reflects both the penetration of technology into these newer groups, but also characteristics of these groups … ages and other interests.” The widespread publicity surrounding surveillance cameras and YouTube has been dominated by “the bad guys” for a long time, according to Decker. And only recently have “the good guys” begun to strategically utilize these sites.

He says while there are many hundreds of millions of people on Facebook (about 900 million worldwide), the social networking behemoth is still heavily concentrated among younger people and their technological know-how. This is a huge factor in the how flash mobs facilitate; with Twitter, one person can send a message to 1,000 other people with just one click. But where social media is the hub of underground fraternization, it is also, rather consistently, the smoking gun.

Reynolds agrees it is vital to keep a watchful eye on networking activity. “It’s amazing what people will put on social media sites,” he says. Civil disturbance activities typically have a considerable planning element, and social media sites can easily provide that platform. “They’ll actually talk about where they’re going to hold their events, what their strategies are going to be, what types of weapons they’re going to use, where they’re going to hide,” says Reynolds. “For crowd control, it’s very helpful.”

In fact electric media storage has become the most valuable item to obtain with a search warrant. “When we think of contemporary LE, we still think of cars and patrol,” says Decker. “Now you look for the cell phones, the hard drives, the thumb drives. That’s a real change for law enforcement.”

Making friends with Facebook

Most agencies do have a strong social media presence by now. A recent International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) survey indicates of 500 agencies across 49 states, 81 percent were using social media as a form of public outreach. Philadelphia Police Department in particular uses Twitter for crime notification and reporting in real time.

Nick Newman with the National White Collar Crime Center (NW3C) has trained over 3,000 state, local, federal and tribal law enforcement officials in the country in computer crimes and forensics. In regard to flash rob violence, Newman says: “It is always the fear of the unknown … and how are we going to be able to respond to that?” Newman says law enforcement often wants to know how to find information on Twitter, and how to document evidence on social media so that it can be used in court.

NW3C is currently developing training that will demonstrate how to do just that. The two-day course will address major social networks and websites that utilize social content, like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube. “The big advantage to using Twitter is one person can use their cell phone, and who doesn’t have a cell phone in their pocket?” Newman says. “That’s good for law enforcement as well, because every time that Tweet is sent out, that’s one more thing law enforcement can [use] to investigate.”

YouTube may be particularly well-suited to flash robs investigations, as participants (perhaps not surprisingly) are sometimes keen on posting actual video of the event online. Newman calls this a “dream situation” where law enforcement has got multiple angles of the offense, from security cameras to every smartphone on the scene recording.

Say someone posts flash mob footage online. What happens next? “The first thing law enforcement would do is determine who is the owner of that profile,” says Newman. “If it was a YouTube video they would find out the IP address information for whomever posted the video and then go from there. Odds are, the person who posted the video is either one of the people involved, or they know somebody who was. So it’s very important for law enforcement to leverage social media as a form of evidence.”

Jeremiah Johnson, also a trainer at NW3C, adds that if agencies don’t already have a social media presence, now is the time to get one or more accounts, before someone else fills in the gap. “Even if you use it as a placeholder, it’s better to have it up and running,” says Johnson.

Real-world friends

Immediately following Germantown’s flash mob, Manger consulted with Philadelphia, New Orleans, and other agencies informally to get their take on the experience.

He also reached out to the Police Executive Research Forum—or PERF—a non-profit police research organization that provides management services, technical assistance, executive-level education and support to law enforcement agencies. PERF has recently held discussions about the Occupy movement, which Manger feels bears some similarity to flash mobs in terms of tactics and gathering information, intelligence and building relationship with groups.

Manger and Reynolds both agree that a mutually beneficial, well-cultivated relationship with Germantown’s businesses, schools, parents and children was crucial to identifying the suspects, gaining community support and taking a proactive stance against mob activity. In a word: involvement.

“You can get a lot of positive momentum to say this is not acceptable; this is not something that we can have in our city,” says Reynolds. “We’ve found there were some good kids involved in that group that were just doing bad things. When we interacted with the schools, it really sent a clear message and had positive impact on preventing similar events from happening in the future.”

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