Friday, August 19, 2011

Flash Mob Copycats: Nice Work MoCo

Is Montgomery County unknowingly invoking a Willie Horton strategy to push a youth curfew?  

County leaders have taken to using the now-famous Germantown flash mob video to persuade a skeptical public to submit to fines and parenting classes for adults whose children are caught outside at night. See, for example, the article below in the Gaithersburg Patch:

This strategy is problematic (and just plain silly) for a number of reasons:

 1. Nice Work, Detective

Let's get the obvious problem out of the way first. The use of flash mobs (ie: spontaneous gatherings of people for brief periods of time, usually organized over the internet or through cell phones) for pranks and shoplifting is a phenomenon that is spreading globally. But this is nothing new -- the fad goes in and out of style every few years. So, what would be your best strategy if you want to prevent the practice from spreading?

Here's Montgomery County's idea, according to the Gazette, in an article titled "Police still want help identifying 7-Eleven mob":
The department posted three videos to YouTube on Monday and the response so far has been “tremendous,” said spokesman Officer Howard Hersh. The videos had garnered more than 100,000 views by Thursday afternoon.
Ingenious! Let's stop flash mobs in Montgomery County by virally spreading footage of.... flash mobs in Montgomery County? After that, let's put our videos on a website that we know young people frequent, and then let's begin a full-court press to make sure the media covers the story. (They must've learned these tactics from the makers of the classic 1936 film Reefer Madness).

Now, I could understand this strategy for a murder, rape, kidnapping, or other crime where time is of the essence -- or maybe where there has been a great social harm. But for a couple hundred dollars of stolen candy, taquitos, and Slurpees ©, this seems like:
  1. an awful waste of police time and resources, 
  2. a publicity stunt to calm (or incite) an irrationally fearful public, and
  3. an open invitation for...   more flash mobs!
Don't believe me? You must've missed this article, which shows that the very next day after the press blitz, our neighbors in Washington, DC were inspired to conduct their own flash mob.

What explains this police strategy? As CNN recently wrote about the Germantown flash mob:
At least one expert believes most members of law enforcement are far behind the times when it comes to battling flash robs.

"Part of the challenge is generational. Older officers in management positions -- the ones making decisions -- are often not as savvy as younger officers with social media," said Nancy Kolb, who oversees the International Association of Chiefs of Police's Center for Social Media.
That sounds possible, but it still doesn't explain the thesis of this post, or why the County is putting such disproportionate resources into what is essentially a juvenile shoplifting crime. Here's my theory....

2. Willie Horton's Unconscious Legacy

DISCLAIMER: I am not accusing Montgomery officials of racism, nor am I alleging racial motives in pursuing the flash mob teens. I am simply highlighting the very real possibility of stoking racial fears in the pursuit of a curfew.

Given how quickly County leaders used the Germantown flash mob story to promote the youth curfew, I get the sense that they were almost giddy to have that video footage:
Video of a teenage flash mob inside a 7-Eleven store may help police convince Montgomery County Council that a curfew is needed.
But, I am very uncomfortable with the idea that this persuasion may play on suburban voters' fears of black and minority youths. Does this photo scare you?

Knowingly or unknowingly, I think using this type of footage as the trailer for a legislative proposal, risks crossing the line into Willie Horton territory. In fact, their use of this strategy at all raises serious questions to me about whether the County can be trusted to guard against racial profiling in curfew enforcement.

Contrast that imagery to the cheery coverage of another flash mob, organized this past April. The Gazette's headline read, Flash mob delights shoppers and diners in downtown Silver Spring:
Do these flash mob participants scare you? (Gazette Photo)
The flash mob, a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place to perform briefly and then disperse, was organized by students in the Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent's Leadership Program. The competitively selected students participating in the program demonstrate outstanding leadership, academic excellence, and uncommon maturity within their schools and communities, and participate in a 15-hour-per-week internship.

Students were asked to organize the flash mob because it teaches managerial and leadership skills, as well as the art of persuasion, said Kim Jones, program director. The 16 students in the program needed to rally friends together to participate in the event.
Now that we've established there are "bad" and "good" flash mob participants, I would like to look specifically at whether our manhunt and the hysteria over the "bad" flash mob participants are justified.

Wait! The LA Times already wrote about this:
Flash mobs come in all shapes and sizes. And they don't all turn violent -- those in Philadelphia and Britain being notable examples of the violent category. Exhibit A in the nonviolent category? A flash mob over the weekend that essentially amounted to a group of teenagers (some giggling) shoplifting from a 7-Eleven.

It all went down in Montgomery County, Md., an affluent suburb just north of Washington, D.C. The store's security video feed (shown above) caught the event and shows the kids quietly but quickly entering the store.

One boy knocks over what looks like a bag of chips and leaves it in the aisle. A girl picks up the chips and places them back on the shelf, then hikes up her jeans. The kids do not look like seasoned criminals.

"If you've seen the videos, they are laughing and smiling, but as a police department we are taking this very seriously," Police Officer Howard Hersh of the Montgomery County Police Department said in an interview with the L.A. Times.
Even still, the Potomac Maryland Tea Party is complaining that the police in "Montgomery County are doing a rotten job of protecting a business being ripped off by a black 'flash' mob." I'm not quite sure what the relevance is of it being a "black" flash mob. We saw similar excitement from the nativists, when Montgomery County decided to start aiding in the deportation of nonviolent residents.

I expect that some may see this as hypersensitivity or liberal hippy-ness, but these issues bother me. I am not saying the kids shouldn't suffer any consequences, but I do think we need stop using isolated crimes and outliers to justify every ridiculous policy idea relating to crime. Note that Philadelphia's youth curfew is now set at 9 pm, while Cleveland Heights, Ohio even drops theirs to 6 pm. Why don't we just ban childbirthing altogether? 

On second thought, I should shut up now. Somebody in Montgomery County's government is writing that last idea down.


  1. What I cannot figure is how the police think they would have stopped the flash mob if the curfew had been on the books. Do they know where the flash mob first gathered? Was law enforcement in the area? Did someone call the police to report a gathering and the police responded they could not do anything? This has gotten national attention and it is certainly easy to point to the flash mob and say "see, we need a curfew!" But it is not clear to me that curfews can actually prevent these because the police are not everywhere, all of the time.

    Perhaps the goal is to create a chilling effect so that those under 18 will know not to go out after the curfew? Of course, shoplifting laws obviously failed to have much of a chilling effect so why would a curfew law?

  2. Marc, the only way these policies make sense is from a political lens. They are cheap band aid proposals to generate press, instead of actual policy solutions. Obviously they wouldn't have known where the mob would materialize. That's the whole point of it being a "flash" mob. :)

    I also heard Chief Manger testify that youths involved in the Silver Spring stabbing told the MoCo police that they came to Sprung because Montgomery County didn't have a curfew.

    Smells like B.S. to me, but if not, I would love to see transcript. Gotta keep 'em honest!

  3. Also, I will surely be writing about more serious and specific problems with ANY version of the curfew policy -- but I'm going to wait until closer to the September committee hearings. :)