Flash Mobs - The Next Big Thing

Joel Johnston
September 06, 2011
By Joel Johnston
We recently witnessed unsettling events across the UK but also here in Canada and the US – a troubling social phenomenon that includes using modern technology to assist in encouraging and enabling the rapid spread of riotous behaviour. I have used the term "flash-mob violence" or "flash-mob civil disturbance" to describe the UK riots and what happened in Vancouver in June. It seems a version of this also occurred in Philadelphia over the summer. The North American incidents are not precisely the same as the UK situation but many of the "drivers" behind the behaviour were the same. I do not think these terms explain or necessarily define the phenomenon – however they do provide an apt, current name for it. It is a take-off from the term "flash-mob" – coined in 2003, it is the use of modern technology to mobilize people to a particular location or locations to participate in a pre-rehearsed activity. In these cases (to one extent or another) it has been used to encourage, instigate and mobilize riotous behaviour – vandalism, arson, break & enter, looting/theft, assault, etc.

We recently witnessed unsettling events across the UK but also here in Canada and the US – a troubling social phenomenon that includes using modern technology to assist in encouraging and enabling the rapid spread of riotous behaviour.

I have used the term "flash-mob violence" or "flash-mob civil disturbance" to describe the UK riots and what happened in Vancouver in June. It seems a version of this also occurred in Philadelphia over the summer. The North American incidents are not precisely the same as the UK situation but many of the "drivers" behind the behaviour were the same. I do not think these terms explain or necessarily define the phenomenon – however they do provide an apt, current name for it. It is a take-off from the term "flash-mob" – coined in 2003, it is the use of modern technology to mobilize people to a particular location or locations to participate in a pre-rehearsed activity. In these cases (to one extent or another) it has been used to encourage, instigate and mobilize riotous behaviour – vandalism, arson, break & enter, looting/theft, assault, etc.

I believe the explanation for this phenomenon is far more complex than can be captured in a name or short article. The behaviour relates directly to the breakdown of family, social, political, cultural and economic norms and values that started several decades ago – the enabling parents of a generation of aimless youth, a video-game mentality completely out of touch with reality, a sense of endless entitlement, personal greed, lack of accountability for almost everything and "celebritization" of outrageous behaviour engaged in by "normal people" (think etc). Add a beleaguered economy, government-imposed austerity measures that disproportionately impact the middle and lower classes, a widening inequality in wealth and opportunity, a sense of hopelessness for the future – we find ourselves struggling to hold our society together in many ways.

We are witnessing behaviour that crosses boundaries unseen in the past – young men and women and, in many instances, their parents. These are angry people from diverse "socio-economic" strata, actively participating in widespread unlawful, violent, destructive behaviour. Law enforcement finds itself constantly struggling for sufficient resources and funding to contest this behaviour. Governments are cash-strapped for a vast number of reasons, many realized through years of mismanagement and self-indulgence, and are unable to financially sustain a domestic "war" on this kind of activity.

One thing is certain; all of the reasons that drive this kind of behaviour have developed over the past several decades and it is unlikely we are going to sufficiently impact them to make this problem go away. Law enforcement may face its toughest challenge ever – dealing with "flash-mob" crime, violence and riotous behaviour with increasing frequency. Police have demonstrated resilience throughout history but are sometimes slow to respond to emerging threats. This threat needs to be considered across the board by large and small police agencies the world over (particularly North America and Europe) – and it needs to be considered now!

In order to contain and effectively deal with these types of events, policing needs to become more adaptable, agile and mobile. Patrol or day-to-day operational units will be tasked with dealing with this phenomenon. Waiting for specially-trained public order units or emergency response teams is not workable – timing is critical. The boots-on-the-ground officers need to be better trained in team tactics and strategies that focus specifically on dealing with this behaviour. Training needs to be common across regions so that multi-agency interoperability is seamless. There will be a need to work easily alongside colleagues with different shoulder flashes. Common communications systems and command structures are also vital. Many of these concepts were addressed in past years with "active shooter response" or "immediate rapid deployment" training.

All operational police officers need to be equipped with wearable, light, mobile but capable protective equipment that dissipates impact and is heat and fire resistant – equipment that can be donned quickly and easily and preferably worn under the normal operational uniform so as to not incite or invite violence. They must also be trained and have ready access to force-multiplying less lethal options that effectively address counter-measures being taken by the modern-day rioter (i.e. cold water cannons, environmental "discomforters" – things that make people no longer want to be there and both discriminate and indiscriminate impact projectiles). There is no way police can match numbers with these kinds of groups at multiple locations. These weapon systems will be necessary from both a defensive and control perspective and will be integral to success.

Law enforcement must also become skilled at how to disrupt these groups at their source through intelligence-driven methods. This means proactively devoting investigative resources to the social media scene and other relevant technology and being attuned to the elements of society who drive this behaviour through traditional and non-traditional methods (i.e. informants/sources, etc.).

Police agencies need to work on advancing legislation which would allow them to access and/or disrupt some of the technology used to enable this type of activity when it is in the public interest. This needs to be accompanied by an astute public media strategy. The CACP passed a resolution at its August meeting on this issue. Canada's privacy commissioner has been quoted as saying that 80 per cent of the Canadian public opposes granting police greater access to social media sites. It will be difficult to overcome some of these obstacles in a free and democratic society where special interest groups frequently rule the day – but we must persist.

Police agencies around the world currently use many tactics and tools that can be effective – if – they are looked at differently. In other words, we have many effective less lethal tools and a good understanding of combat and tactics. Manufacturers are producing better equipment all the time. We understand some the behaviours to an extent and are learning more all the time. We have trained police officers for rapid deployment to the "active shooter" or "terrorist" type threat. The question now becomes how we choose to synthesize our current capabilities into a modern-day context that will allow us to successfully deal with this "new" method of age-old behaviour. We must act now.

  • BIO -

Joel A. Johnston ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ) is a 26-year veteran Vancouver Police Department senior operational sergeant working in the Downtown Eastside. Formerly provincial use of force & ERT coordinator, he is an ERT and crowd control unit veteran, Simon Fraser University graduate, Sandan in traditional Shotokan karate and court-certified use of force subject matter expert. He has contributed to for the past 16 years. The opinions in this article are solely his own and do not represent any official position of offices held.

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