Once ‘flash mob’ meant fun — it meant laughing friends spontaneously arriving at the post office to perform a choreographed dance before abruptly vanishing within a crowd of bemused bystanders. Since the London riots of August 2011, though, ‘flash mob’ has taken on a somewhat sinister meaning. Now, the term is applied to groups, usually teens, who use their cell phones and social media to organize pandemonium or some other awful display of lawlessness.

“The thing that defines the mob is that they have actually now lost any concern for consequences,” Steve Crimando, a consultant and trainer in violence prevention and intervention, said at an Allied Barton seminar hosted by John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Observing how flash mob members no longer care if they’re arrested, if someone else gets hurt, if buildings burn, he added, “This ultimately is what makes the mob so dangerous.”

Crimando has worked with the Department of Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a host of other government agencies. Among his key points, delivered in a steady voice at a rapid tempo while he paced the floor, was that today’s security leaders must contend with a new reality. “What crowd behavior looked like a decade, two decades ago is radically different today,” he said, due to both social media and “the smart phones in all of our pockets. The ability of protestors to communicate, to coordinate, to mobilize today is dramatically different.”

B = f (P,E)

Explaining the theme in all his work is “to help you form accurate behavioral assumptions about what people do and what they don’t do in emergency circumstances,” Crimando lectured on the nature of crowds while squinting into the sunlight streaming through the sixth floor window. Beginning with Lewin’s Equation (which states that behavior is a function of person and environment), he explained how being in a crowd or mob is a “specialized environment that might change individual behavior.”

Anonymity is a main driver of aggressive behavior. It results in a sense of universality, and also confers a loss of responsibility. Meanwhile within any crowd or mob there are those people looking to get out of the mayhem but too afraid the crowd will turn on them... so they continue.

Crimando identified three types of mobs. Aggressive mobs, such as those that burned London in 2011, have a very simple intention: violence. Escape mobs, on the other hand, are driven by panic; hearing rumors of a suicide bomber, nearly a thousand Muslim pilgrims died, crushed to death on August 31, 2005, while crossing a bridge on their way to the Hajj. An acquisition mob, comparatively, is moving as one in order to obtain food or medicine or water or something wanted or needed.

Attentively, the audience — big guys in uncomfortable suits, for the most part, some former cops, one a long-ago bouncer — jotted down the occasional note, but mainly they listened as Crimando recounted the Tokyo subway sarin attack, a volatile event in Brazil, an Iraqi tragedy, endless instance of needless violence caused by GROUPthink.

Swim Against the Tide

Crimando's talk landed on a personal note, as he outlined "what everyone should know for their own personal safety and survival in crowds." Most injuries are not caused by violence per se. “Crowd Crush, medically, is referred to as compressional asphyxiation." Packed in so tight they simply can’t breathe and so, he said, "most people who die of crowd crush die on their feet — they’re not trampled."

Anyone wanting to participate in what they expect to be civil protest, he advised to dress for any possible turn of events. Carry an I.D., a cellphone, and even a small flashlight. “Think about the shoes you’re wearing,” Crimando said, adding that slip-on shoes may come off in crowds and add to your danger.

Stay outside the crowd, he warned, since once inside "your risk changes." For those who unexpectedly come upon a mob and find themselves the object of derision, keep walking to safety no matter what they do or say to you: Don’t take the bait.

Caught within a crowd, Crimando recommends you stay away from temporary structures, such as a stage, and also avoid coming too near immovable objects, such as walls — these are both danger spots where you could get crushed. If you drop something, unless it’s absolutely critical, let it go, do not attempt to pick it up. Most importantly, he says, “remember to keep moving.”

“You work diagonally,” Crimando explained, comparing the force of a crowd to a riptide at the beach. “Push your way towards the edges, toward the sides, slowly out of the force and the strength of the crowd. Don’t let the crowd take you, and don’t turn around and try to fight it," he said. "Keep moving.”

In a staccato tone, he said, “If you’re knocked down, try to get up as quickly as possible, if you can’t get up, crawl with the crowd, if you can’t crawl with the crowd, duck and cover, protect the airwaves, protect the vitals until you can get back on your feet." Then, Crimando allowed a single beat of silence before ominously concluding:

“I hope all of you never have to use a single thing I said… thank you.”