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Is Flash Justice the Solution to Flash Riots?
By Art Bowker, Cybercrime Specialist
Published: 09/26/2011

Gavel laptop This summer has seen a perverted twist on a phenomenon that started in 2003, specifically flash mobs. Initially flash mobs were organized, usually via social media, for entertainment, fun, even social protests. However, this summer we saw flash mobs being organized for crime. We had the riots in the United Kingdom and numerous mass shoplifting and robberies occurring in the United States. These acts were all apparently coordinated via social media. Who knows if this will be a new trend or if it will fizzle out.

One thing that concerns me is a terrorist creating a flash mob to either maximize the casualties and/or reduce the response time of law enforcement and other first responders. I could also imagine a “lone wolf” terrorist doing the same thing. We may also see “smarter” offenders using a flash mob to divert attention for a much more serious criminal act. Imagine being able to manipulate a mob to commit a crime. For now we are dealing with those who thought it was okay to participate in a mass free for all of criminality.

Thanks to technology many of these “Einsteins” were video taped in the act. Many have been arrested. I can hear the arguments being made by some offenders who were caught. I just went to a location to see what was going to happen. All I took was a candy bar. I never intended to do anything criminal. There will be a lot of rationalization and minimization going on for sure. The task for the person making the sentencing recommendations is going to be to cut through all this stuff. But how?

The United Kingdom apparently is adopting decades old rules for dealing with these recent rioters,. They have three principles which are being used to guide sentencing decisions. The first principle is that apprehended offenders can’t’ argue that they shouldn’t be punished because others who were equally to blame didn’t get caught. The second principle is anyone who is involved in a major mass criminal act can’t expect to have their actions considered separately from those others involved. Basically, no matter how minor their role was in the event they are just as responsible for the results of the larger disorder in which the police were overwhelmed by strength of numbers. Finally, the last principle is the offender’s previous good character has less mitigation effect when they are involved in a large scale criminal act, such as riot. It is kind of interesting that they are using principles that were developed well before social networking or even the Internet was created.

I am not saying that is a bad way of dealing with riots. But the effect is starting to be felt in the prisons and jails. There are reports that in England and Wales jail populations are increasing by 100 a day, which is being attributed in part to justice dispensed to the rioters. You see in a “wired” society, with cameras every where no one gets away for long. Forty years ago, when their legal principles were adopted, you have only a few offenders getting caught. Now with cameras recording everything you have a larger percentage of the mob being arrested. Not to mention the truly brain dead rioters posting pictures of themselves on the Facebook profiles doing criminal acts. Maybe the hard line though will put an end to the flash riots.

What about in the United States? In the states we pride ourselves on individualized justice. What do we do with 75 offenders who meet via a social media to shoplift $700 from a local store? Maybe we treat them all equal and throw the book at them. Maybe there is another way though. Why not focus on the ring leaders, you know those who arranged the acts. Come down hard on these who posted and spread the word to do start a crime wave. Anyone caught committing violence, as opposed to stealing a candy bar or six back of beer goes to the front of the prison bus.

Law enforcement are going to have to get up to speed and fast. Some law enforcement are already monitoring social media. Additionally, after the fact they are also going to have to be prepared to investigate who arranged the event, i.e, got the discussion going via the social media. Sure those video cameras and posts on offender’s social networking profiles are great but they are just pieces of the investigative pie. Obviously, these investigations are going to depend upon the amount of loss, damage, and/or harm inflicted.

For those in corrections, particularly those involved in sentencing recommendations, maybe it is time to take a breath. Look at the loss, the damage and harm and the role the offender played in the crime. Also look to how cooperative they were with the police in helping in the investigation and/or if they accepted responsibility for their crime. Finally, what does their prior record look like.

I truly hope this is just a stupid fad, like the “streakers” of my day. (Yeah, thirty years ago folks sometimes chose to run naked through the streets as opposed to burning everything down.) Maybe the UK has got it right. But then again, it will not take too many social media shoplifting events to quickly overwhelm correctional resources. After all in today’s fiscal environment can we throw everyone in jail? Is flash justice the solution to flash riots? Only time will tell. On that thought my cigar needs a light. Be safe out there.

Visit "The Three C's (Computers, Crime & Corrections)" blog by Art Bowker

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