(WPRI) - When you hear "flash mob," you probably think of a group of people breaking into song or dance. But scenes of violence from cities like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. are giving the phrase an entirely different and darker meaning. And local experts tell us the problem is getting worse.
Professor Sean Varano, a Criminologist at Roger Williams University, says "We have seen what appears to be since this summer a large rise in criminally oriented flash mobs."
The problem has also grabbed headlines here in Rhode Island recently, and videos from across the country are popping up more frequently online. So what are local schools and shopping centers doing to prepare?
The videos show swarms of usually college-aged kids caught on surveillance cameras and cell phone video, robbing stores, smashing property, even brutally beating innocent bystanders.
"These groups tend to organize themselves in an intentional fashion in order to go out and commit a crime of sorts," says Professor Varano. "Whether it's to rob a convenience store or go into a retail shopping center and have a large number of people start stealing things off the shelves."
Professor Varano also says that flash mobs are difficult to predict or prevent because the groups form so quickly; often using social media. "I think the policing community really right now is behind the eight-ball on this," he adds.
Even if violence is not the intent of a flash mob, experts tell us volatility is a concern. That was the case when a flash mob of 400 people took over the URI library back in May. Fortunately, the incident was broken up with only minor property damage.
Dr. Jason Pina, the Dean of Students at URI, says "Police responded and found it overwhelmed, over-run with students. A couple of filing cabinets got dented, I think we replaced one or two ceiling panels, but nothing too serious."
Now, we've learned school officials are studying this event and others across the country to improve their response to large, unexpected gatherings. "We're really trying to figure out, what are the dynamics that cause an incident to become a 200 or 400 person incident, where 10 years ago it may have only been a 5 or 10 person incident," says Dr. Pina. "We're looking around safety and security first off, and getting that facility and those students back to the business of their education as soon as we can."
Experts tell us quick action is even more important in the age of social media, because swarms can grow quickly, increasing the chances that a situation will turn violent. "Even when what appears to be fun or silly events happen with the use of social media," says Professor Varano, "the potential for danger is very real."
We also talked to officials from the Warwick and Providence Place malls as part of our report. They tell us that flash mobs are now the latest addition to a long list of incidents they have to be prepared for.
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