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Philadelphia Police Commissioner Says: Don't Call Riots 'Flash Mobs'

BY Nick Judd | Friday, August 12 2011

Walk into the right church, apparently, and you hear Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter excoriate young black people for the violence that is making some residents of his city afraid to go downtown at night.

But while local news media and even his own city public relations apparatus are buying into the story that groups of teens getting up to no good is a new phenomenon spurred by the ease of organizing on Twitter or Facebook, his police department isn't buying it.

Speaking to a churchgoing audience last Sunday, Nutter reportedly told black teenagers in Philadelphia to "take those doggone hoodies down, especially in the summer," and to "pull your pants up and buy a belt because no one wants to see your underwear or the crack of your butt."

He was less hot-blooded during a press conference the next day, when he announced that the city's weekend curfew for minors would be tightened to 9 p.m., a decision that goes into effect today. Perhaps catering to their news audience, the Philadelphia police department's website headlined the curfew announcement, "Mayor Nutter Announces “Flash Mob” Response, Lowers Weekend Curfew to 9pm in Targeted Enforcement Areas" — while Nutter didn't use the words "flash mob" at all.

City police officials seem to know better. During his first-ever online chat with members of the public, hosted on Friday by Philly.com, Philadelphia's police commissioner, Charles Ramsey, said that the city's focus is on crime — not social media. While crime statistics available online indicate that assaults, thefts and robberies are up in Philadelphia so far this year compared to the same period the year prior, a police spokesman told me earlier this week that social media was deliberately used to plan a crime in only a very few instances.

"Over the last three years, [there have been] probably about six or seven incidents specifically involving social media," the spokesman, Lt. Ray Evers, told me earlier this week.

"The media coined the term 'flash mobs' - it's not the right term," Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey told people participating in the group chat. "I prefer the term rampaging thugs, and the juveniles who've been arrested for these assaults have been charged criminally with rioting."

At least in Philadelphia, police say their approach to social media is to understand it as the latest means of communication and nothing more.

"Social networking is not the issue," Ramsey said. "It's here to stay, it's the latest form of communication, we take advantage of it when we can. It's how people are misusing it in order to gather and then commit a crime."

"Flash mob" itself is not the right nomenclature, Ramsey agreed — but during the chat, his deputy commissioner, Kevin Bethel, used the term multiple times.

"Flash mob" usually means a spontaneous mass act of performance art, humor, or protest. Continuing to use the term in this context risks putting pressure on the police to respond to one tool allegedly used in criminal activity rather than the activity itself, something Philadelphia police have so far resisted.

In short, a modern obsession with technology risks doing more harm than good.

The stories emerging from Philadelphia are horrific. Late last month, police say, three teenage kids and a 19-year-old man punched a 30-year-old man who was just walking down the street, knocking out a tooth. A spokesman for the Philadelphia police department told me that in that case, police had intelligence indicating that attack was organized on social media.

In June, a much larger group of perhaps as many as 50 was present for assaults that injured multiple people after a festival in North Philadelphia, said the police spokesman, Lt. Ray Evers. That was one of what seems to be multiple cases where just having too many kids in one place got out of hand; people who were present at one such recent incident told Fox News they were just out to have a good time when things got ugly.

Last March, a string of incidents caught national attention. Riots and lightning-quick robberies involving multiple perpetrators are happening in cities nationwide, gaining national attention in recent weeks. Thursday, the New York Daily News reported that the NYPD has formed a unit to mine social media like Twitter and Facebook for information about crimes and to do outreach work. In Cleveland, a bill banning confabs organized via social media passed the city council but was vetoed by the mayor.

So-called "flash robs," where a group-orchestrated theft is organized the same way a group of pranksters would put together a no-pants subway ride, happened to 10 percent of 106 companies polled for a recently released National Retail Federation survey about multiple-offender crime.

The random-assault-by-juvenile-mob story is a longstanding item of choice for city newspapers. In 2007, when I was working for the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, my colleagues on the police beat closely followed the escapades of what we then called a "wolf pack" of teens who assaulted people in the street, videotaping their exploits, prosecutors said, in order to show off to their friends. That's just one modern example, but this fixation goes back decades. In the 1950s, reports of violence by inner-city youth on the New York subways spawned the creation of a special unit to track juvenile crime in what was then the city's transit police force. Back then, it was zip guns, not Twitter, that raised the fears of city dwellers.

Students of the old relationship between police and media, like the sociologist Mark Fishman, describe in detail how the interplay between police spokespeople and reporters shape the way people understand crime in their neighborhoods. In the 1970s, when Fishman was conducting his research, if a headline called a group of kids a "flash mob" or "wolf pack," then people had no choice but to believe it must be so.

Exactly how new ways of communicating are changing petty crime in this country is something we don't know yet. Thanks in part to Philly.com's willingness to help make Ramsey accessible to more people than just a select group of reporters and editors, it's no longer the case that an unruly group of kids in Philadelphia should be understood as a "flash mob" just because an editor decides that's the case.