After reading an article by Cynthia Brown in a recent issue of the American Police Beat, titled “How do we police the flash mob”, I wanted to chime in with a few points and perhaps facilitate a discussion. I hope not to so much discuss the root of the issue, but ways to address it, as in the years to come it will continue to be a problem through which civilians and cops are injured. As usual, Ms. Brown is right on with many key observations. I have had numerous opportunities in the last ten years to watch this trend develop first hand, and to be in a position along side other professionals who address its outcomes. In my opinion, neither the “flash mobs”, “roving mobs”, nor “gangs of thugs” are a new phenomenon. What is new, is the ways in which the offenders communicate, gather and disseminate information, and the level of violence they bring to the streets.
Aside from the availability and widespread use of social media for the illicit purposes, the idea of law enforcement transparency often used by us as part of the “community” policing principles, has all but served against our own missions. One has to spend very little effort to find and review our tactics, policies and procedures online. This includes entire department manuals on crowd control, tactical teams and tools used. Often seen from more professional anti-government groups, is a tactic of recording police response when these events turn from peaceful assemblies, to riots.
The media coverage has never been unbiased in their representation of our response, and that just compounds the issue when dealing with the fallout from the havoc. If we can't fix other factors, we should at least limit the amount of information we put out there, or make it so readily accessible to anyone. Not to underestimate even the teenage offenders or “street thugs”, the intelligence which goes into planning a riot or a flash mob should not be understated. GPS images of streets, observations of pre-planned and visible police response, staged mini-incidents to test the response, and area casing have all been used in the past.
We must accept the fact, and approach every event from a perspective that every mass gathering event, is potentially a mass casualty event. Notwithstanding the modern threats of terrorism, as a profession we must wholeheartedly admit this and adjust our approaches.
This fact is often in the back of our heads, or somewhere in pre-planning, but we all too often don't honestly embrace it. Whether it's a church festival, state fair, farmers market, concert, or a demonstration – everyone involved should expect that there are people who want to harm us, and those in attendance.
Their reasons should not be as important as their methods, and our alert level should be informed and not paranoid. I believe that once this reality is accepted, our approach will become more proactive and determined. If the tactical aspects are not addressed prior to the event, we are left scrambling for responses and picking up the wounded. The approach must be multi-disciplinary and involved all available or willing resources.
* Environmental design: nothing says that barricades, posted signs, lighting, manual gates and uniformed posts, negate the function of the event or its appeal as a family venue. Even street sweepers and DPW equipment properly positioned and staged, will not detract from regular crowds wanting nothing but to have a good, law-abiding time. In fact, many will simply appreciate the fact, if they realize the potential of these adjuncts. These tools enable channeling of people, separating of crowds, and enhance in overall response of specialized teams. Other proven methods as mentioned in the article, include curfew, limited admission criteria, and fee-controlled admission.
* Interagency combined planning: gone are the days when an event can exist in a vacuum, and completely separate from the surrounding area, and its socio-demographics. The pre-planning must include every neighboring agency remotely affected by the event, or a possibility of a disruption. Better still, mutual aid resources should be placed on notice prior to the event. Not only is the response itself improved, but also the logistics of equipment, overtime, and communications. Speaking of communications, allowing the cops and first responders to talk directly to each other when things go down is paramount. It's not enough that a command center or centralized dispatch may have the option to direct multiple resources. The boots on the grounds must be able to do so, where applicable and practical. Emergency medical resources have to be part of the equation. Despite their close proximity and immediate availability, traditional EMS should not be required to enter a hostile environment of a car on fire, or an unruly crowd, to rescue a downed officer. Tactical Casualty Care is everyone's responsibility, starting with the cops going against a line. Training and aid kits must accompany at the very least some of the officers or specialized teams, and rescue training must go along the tactical skills. An asset to consider in that regard is a dedicated Tactical EMS team. Still, planning alone is not enough. Once the plan is in place, it must be practiced. All agencies, or at the minimum a core of responders within them, should train together and debrief possible issues. Planning on paper benefits only those looking at the paper, and not nearly as much those who directly follow the plan. As in the G-8 and similar events, once you ask for help from other agencies, you may be surprised how much help comes, and from how far away.
*Specialized Teams: Budgets have always been an issue, and for years agencies have been cutting resources which are often the most useful in addressing the problems discussed here. Mounted units are often seen as just a public relations tool. They are put by the wayside, and age-old tactics with their benefits are dismissed. Yet, no single element of crowd management is as effective, or successful at both: the public relations and public safety. The Mounties’ tremendous asset in officer safety can not be overstated. If practiced outside the proverbial box, officer safety is enhanced, force multiplier factor is obvious, and the basics of crowd movement and direction are accomplished with ease. Picture a shoulder to shoulder crowd, and one patron having a concealed firearm that bulks out from underneath a shirt. A mounted officer can see this from a distance, and direct resources. A surveillance camera has a slim chance of picking this up, and cops on the ground simply do not have that vantage point, or often a safe manner in which to initiate contact. K-9 units can accomplish similar aspects of crowd control, even with one K-9 and handler team. Having them on hand is a great deterrent, and combined with the Mounted unit, is an unbeatable resource when the mob goes mobile. Hard gear teams… The most used and currently conventional approach is to deploy teams of officers in hard protective gear, with shields, gas and other force options. Simply outnumbered, officer safety factors are negated here, the most. The same budget cuts are often responsible for limited or not maintained equipment. If the foot team of officers are remotely effective on their own, they are infinitely more so and much safer in conjunction with other assets discussed above. If one has ever seen all these resources combined and working in partnership, it is nothing short of impressive.
Not to mention effective. Bike patrol, motorcycle teams and plain clothes officers are additional options that need to be utilized for the combined effectiveness. Many businesses have expressed their own concerns due to the flash mobs, and initiated their own coalitions and response plans. The same businesses who have inherent interests in the event going well or are in the immediate vicinity of it, may be willing and able to donate funds or allocate sources, which can make up for some budget issues within a department.
* Intelligence gathering and utilization: This by itself is a tremendous component. Here is where the social media comes in as a very useful investigation and intelligence tool. However, the issue becomes where entire reliability and outsourcing of information is relied on Facebook or Twitter. No one post should be taken with one hundred percent reliability. The information used must be based on multiple sources, including community resources, informants and personal contacts at the event itself. With great effect, many plain clothes agency representatives have approached contacts of interest at a given event, and did a public knock and talk of sorts. A free and open exchange of information, field interview and proactive intelligence gathering. Thinking in that direction, a host agency responsible for the event should also be able to use the same social media to disseminate their own information. The military sometimes refers to this as counter intelligence. Whether statements of deterrence to potential offenders, seeking info, or using any number of creative means for which these networks are suited. Based on this intelligence, the goal of preventing some critical incidents rather than responding to them may be accomplished. Reviewing video and sources from prior events, community outreach and utilization of all available resources may serve well in the long run.
Even with the current trends discussed, those responsible for leading the flash mob are still a relatively small group. One may find that the same individuals are involved in multiple events across the area. Proactive contacts far in advance of the event may not only deter the activity altogether, but also improve response during and prosecution after the event. The social networks are a tool for them and for us. To me, those orchestrating the mob might as well communicate by smoke signals and mirrors. The goal-oriented offenders will try to communicate by whatever means are available, but we cannot leave ourselves out of the equation. Nor should we be opening ourselves to worry about politics, when lives are at stake. Using a holistic approach, understanding of modern threats, and application of social networks available to the bad guys and the good guys alike, we can remain fluid in our planning and response.
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