LAPD scrambles to stay ahead of flash mobs

Social networks can be used to plan violence and other criminal activities

The Daily News of Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES — Had the tips never come in about new "threats" during Carmageddon, police may never have known until it was too late.

Out in full view of the public, but buried somewhere in the mountains of chatter on Twitter, a flash mob was planning to form on the shuttered Mulholland Bridge, half of which was being torn down to make room for a car-pool lane on the 405 Freeway.

At the same time, there was some tweeting about a group of bicyclists planning to take a joy ride on the freeway while it was closed the weekend of July 16-17.

In response, LAPD deployed extra officers around the bridge to head off any type of gathering spawned by the 140-characters-or-less tweets. The scouts and bikers were turned around, their planned assembly a failure.

But it was a success for LAPD, who along with other law enforcement agencies, have been scrambling in recent months to deal with the phenomenon in which a group of strangers spontaneously gather at a public location for some sort of group activity — sometimes a less-than-legal one — after seeing messages through social networking sites.

"It's one of those things that as we move into the era of social media, dealing with flash mobs is one of those things we have to be prepared for," said LAPD Cmdr. Andy Smith. "It's tough."

Flash mobs were first documented around 2003. Most are well-meaning and harmless. Their participants, mainly Generation X or Y and tech-savvy, converge in public spots to have pillow fights, play dead, do a synchronized dance or other group activity as a form of artistic expression or just have a good time with a bunch of strangers.

But in recent months, wayward participants have soured the gatherings or have even gone as far as using social networks to plan violence and other criminal activities.

"Unfortunately, like anything else that's good, there always seems to be somebody who morphs that into something not good," said Capt. Mike Parker of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "The people who initiated the thing were well-meaning and well-intentioned, but it gets hijacked. And then it turns ugly."

In July, a popular DJ tweeted to his 100,000-plus followers that he was going to have an impromptu block party on Hollywood Boulevard, outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre.

The gathering brought hundreds to the busy thoroughfare, shutting down traffic and triggering a near-riot in which three were arrested for vandalizing police cars.

In Venice Beach, a man was shot at a flash mob gathering at some basketball courts in April.

Also in Venice, Twitter users again tipped off LAPD about rock band The Red Hot Chili Peppers giving a free concert on a rooftop in August. The "concert" turned out to be a film shoot for a music video, and extra police were deployed to regulate traffic and discourage public drinking.

"It could have been a disaster if we had thousands of people show up in one spot, a traffic nightmare, a public safety nightmare," Smith said.

The same month, rapper The Game tweeted a phone number to his more than 580,000 followers, urging them to call for a music internship. The number turned out to be the non-emergency line for the Compton Sheriff's Station, overwhelming deputies and delaying response to calls for service.

The Game claimed his account had been hacked, and deputies declined to press charges after the rapper apologized.

And while most bicyclists at organized bike rides in Venice Beach are well-behaved, small groups have been known to peel off and ride through grocery stores as a result of Twitter, according to Smith.

Still, other flash mobs are malicious right from the get-go.

In Germantown, Md., a group of youngsters coordinated a "flash rob," in which they ran through and looted a 7-11 store. In Las Vegas, about 20 teens robbed another convenience store, taking about 600 items. In Philadelphia, 2,000 teens fought in the streets, vandalized cars and ran through a shopping mall.

At the Wisconsin State Fair in August, hundreds of African-American youths attacked white fairgoers.

And in the four-day long London riots, youths used the text-messaging service Blackberry Messenger to coordinate looting and arson.

"It's trivially easy for people who only share one dimension of common interest to find each other and coordinate what they do," said Tim Groeling, chairman of the Communications Studies Department at University of California, Los Angeles. "You used to have a convention, staff, a mailing list."

The uptick in flash mobs gone bad is spurred by a combination of factors: mob mentality, the anonymity of the Internet, the real-time messages people can access through their smartphones even while away from their computers, and either a gain in online infamy or loot.

It's only likely to get worse, experts said.

"They're certainly becoming more and more common," Smith said. "And people are recognizing that they can use them for unlawful activities."

And with police still trying to catch up to the new mutation spawned from Internet technology, those looking to hijack flash mobs or organize crime through social networks may have a technological advantage — for now.

"The demographic that is currently using Twitter has the impression that the police are far less likely to be monitoring that," Groeling said. "But I don't think it's going to last long."

In Philadelphia, officials sought help from the FBI to help monitor social media networks.

The LAPD and Sheriff's Department, while still relying heavily on public tips, have devoted manpower to keep track of trending topics and buzz words on Twitter that could result in unruly gatherings or disrupt traffic.

Officers with LAPD's Internet Unit, for example, are already keeping an eye out for chatter that results in incidents breaking out during protests or counter-protests during President Obama's visit to Los Angeles on Monday.

But the officers have to know what to look for, where to look for it, and with ever-evolving variations of online slang and jargon, heading off an errant flash mob is not so easy.

"We are trying to monitor those the best we can," Smith said. "But it's not too hard for somebody to put out a tweet without us knowing about it. We can't be Big Brother everywhere, all the time."

Still, law enforcement officials recognize that they are treading a fine line between ensuring public safety and interfering with freedoms of expression and assembly.

"We're trying as hard as we can to not impede on people's rights to gather and have fun," Parker said. "The challenge is at what point does it become a hazard for the safety of people that don't want to participate and frankly, the people that do want to participate?"

Copyright 2011 Tower Media, Inc.

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