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Police Weigh Options to Control Flashmobs

By Edwin Folven, 8/18/2011

Authorities Admit There May be Few Options for Prosecution

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The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles Police Department are examining ways to respond to large disruptions caused by people who send out messages via Twitter and other social networking outlets.

A flashmob gathered outside the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on July 27 after a DJ tweeted there was going to be a block party. (photo by Edwin Folven)

The action follows incidents that have recently occurred in Hollywood and Compton. On July 27, a DJ associated with the Electric Daisy Carnival raves tweeted that he was going to appear at a block party outside the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, where a documentary on raves was being screened. Thousands of people came to Hollywood Boulevard, where a near-riot broke out.

Sheriff’s Department officials were looking at the issue after a rapper known as The Game allegedly sent out a tweet last Friday stating that people could secure a music internship by calling a phone number that was actually to the Compton Sheriff’s Station. Thousands of people called the number, which tied up lines and prevented authorities from responding to legitimate emergency calls, according to Capt. Mike Parker, with the Sheriff’s Headquarters Bureau. The Game apologized for the incident Wednesday, after which Parker said no charges would be sought because of a lack of evidence.

Only one person has been charged so far in connection with the incident in Hollywood. The LAPD had to call in officers in riot gear to get the crowd to disperse, and three people were taken into custody for resisting arrest, vandalism and failing to disperse. Three LAPD patrol cars were damaged, and the boulevard was closed for approximately three hours. Only one person, Noel Stephen Buller, has been charged criminally. Buller is facing one misdemeanor count of remaining at the scene of a riot, and if convicted, could be sentenced to up to six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. According to the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, Buller was observed yelling at police officers and agitating other people in the crowd, and was arrested after he refused to comply with officers’ commands to disperse.

Parker said the incident involving The Game, whose real name is Jayceon Terrell Taylor, was a major disruption for law enforcement in Compton. The Game reportedly has more than 580,000 followers on Twitter. Parker, an avid Twitter user and the department’s expert on social media, said authorities at the Compton Station did not know what was happening when the phone lines started lighting up around 5:20 p.m. on Aug. 12. He said many of the callers hung up when they learned it was the number to the Compton Sheriff’s Station, prompting authorities to believe there was a problem with their phone lines. But after a few people asked about the internship, deputies realized what had happened and contacted Parker for help. Parker said he contacted The Game to ask that the message be taken down, but did not receive a response. He said the calls started dissipating by 8 p.m., and things returned to normal around 9 p.m.

“The problem was not resolved; it just ran its course,” Parker said. “After a few hours, everything died down.”

The incidents in Los Angeles are among the latest disruptions caused by people using Twitter and other social networking sites. A flashmob (a term used for a group that gathers after being prompted by messages sent through social networking sites) descended on a 7-11 store in Maryland on Tuesday and ransacked and robbed the store in less that a minute. Social networking services and websites were also identified as a conduit for inciting violence during the recent civil unrest in England.

Parker said the issue has the potential to balloon into a major problem for law enforcement, and there are few laws that can be used to prosecute offenders. In the case of the Compton Sheriff’s Station, officials would have had a hard time prosecuting anyone because of First Amendment protections involving free speech, Parker said. Authorities would have had to prove that The Game intentionally sent the message with the intent to disrupt police activities. Parker said there are three laws that officials were looking at in terms of charging someone for the incident. The possible offenses include making annoying or harassing phone calls via electronic device or the Internet; delaying or obstructing peace officers in the performance of their duties; and knowingly and maliciously disrupting or impeding communications over a public safety radio frequency. Parker added that it would have been up to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office to decide whether to file charges. Sandi Gibbons a spokesperson for the D.A.’s office, said she would not speculate on what charges could apply.

Frank Mateljan, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office, said his office is also still reviewing what, if anything, can be done in response to the problems. Capt. Beatrice Girmala, with the Los Angeles Police Department’s Hollywood Division, is also concerned about the recent activities.

“I know the department as a whole is looking into better ways to monitor social networking outlets, and it is a huge concern. A few years ago, this problem didn’t exist, but now people have the ability to communicate and connect so quickly that law enforcement has a hard time keeping up,” Girmala said. “It’s not always a malicious thing, it can be a situation where someone is holding an event and the message goes out to so many people that it gets out of control. Here in Hollywood, we do our best to monitor these things, and we are asking people who are planning events here to take a hard and thoughtful look at how they are publicizing these things. It is something we are all concerned about, because with the sheer numbers in the crowds, problems can occur.”

Parker said he believes it will take new legislation to enable law enforcement to truly get a handle on the problem.

“The broader issue is public safety,” Parker said. “We are looking at what laws have been broken, but it goes beyond that. We have to determine who is at fault and what evidence there is to move forward with prosecution. It is a unique situation with social media, and we are not trying to obstruct anyone’s free speech. But you may see some new laws in the future to address this type of thing. Right now, we are looking at it as a much larger incident, and are asking people who use social media with a large following to use it responsibly.”

 

 

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