Thanks to a video camera fixed to the helmet of a motorcyclist, New Yorkers this fall got a chilling introduction to one of the newest urban public safety threats.
It's called “swarming”—and it involves large groups of individuals, many of them young people, who occupy streets or highways (often with little warning) for thrills and exhibitionist stunts.
On September 29, hundreds of motorcyclists took over New York City's busy West Side Highway—a major thoroughfare. At least one carried a “helmet cam” to record the moment for Internet fame.
But it also recorded a tragedy.
A driver was attacked and badly beaten, with his two-year-old child watching from the back seat, when he allegedly he refused to move aside and caused one motorcyclist to crash.
A few weeks later, more than 100 skateboarders disrupted traffic on Broadway for what they called the “Broadway Bomb. ” According to their website, the event was supposed to be a “free-for-all group skate, with thousands of riders moving in mass from 116th and Broadway to the statue of the Charging Bull on the (Bowling) Green in Downtown Manhattan.”
What both incidents had in common was the use of the Internet to launch spontaneous crowd actions—or “flash mobs.”
And this in turn has created a new challenge for urban police departments.
“These motorcycle groups are becoming endemic to certain areas, and the tough part about policing them is that they become ephemeral,” John DeCarlo, former Chief of Police for the Branford, Connecticut Police Department told The Crime Report.
“These groups just come and go.”
At least six individuals have been arrested in connection with the motorcycle incident, which one prosecutor called “a brutal and brazen attack.”
Even more disturbingly, one of those charged was a New York City undercover detective, who reportedly had joined members of the motorcycle club for their so-called Sunday “Stuntz” rally.”
Using Social Media
The NYPD is already trained to use social media to track such mass events.
While the scale of the motorcycle swarm caught police unawares, law enforcement was aware that something was afoot.
This year, checkpoints had been established to prevent the group from heading into Times Square, where the year before they had been videoed doing wheelies in the middle of an intersection and blocking pedestrian traffic.
“Last year, over 1,000 motorcyclists came,” Kelly said “They rode on the sidewalk – that sort of thing.”
NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said that effort resulted in 15 arrests, 68 summonses, and 55 motorcycles confiscations.
But law enforcement observers concede that they need to take more pro-active steps.
Even as the organizers of the “Broadway Bomb” were calling for recruits on the Web, cops were already there rounding up skateboarders. An NYPD spokeswoman said 38 participants were either arrested or issued summonses.
Flash mobs are not a new feature of urban life. Critical Mass, a bicycle protest, has triggered clashes over the past several years between bicycle riders and cops in major cities such as San Francisco, Chicago and New York.
But there's a worrying difference between the latest version of flash mobs and earlier ones. Critical Mass, for example, was politically inspired. The event was meant to pressure local legislators to make it safer for bicyclists in cities by providing more bike lanes.
But the “swarmers” and “bombers” are performing for the sheer pleasure of showing they can—many admit that risking their lives and defying authority is part of the fun —which makes their actions both harder to predict and tougher to police.
Street bikes, for instance, can maneuver at speeds that police cruisers can't.
Some police agencies have strict no-pursuit policies for the bikes because of the high risk to public safety. While checkpoints can block off high-traffic areas, the ability of bicyclists to evade capture—or even attempts to corral them—creates a challenge.
And one traditional method of slowing motorized traffic—road spike strips—can't be deployed against two-wheeled vehicles, according to a source from the New York State Police.
Earlier in the fall, a motorcycle swarm event dubbed “Ride of the Century” caused major traffic incidents outside of St. Louis. One rider was killed when his motorcycle collided with a police cruiser
Cyclists vs Police
The motorcyclists themselves, however, claim they are unfairly targeted by cops.
Robyn Diamond, a stunt rider and contributor to stuntridemag.com magazine, said the event, which is a celebration of friendships and love of the sports bike freestyle riding, was a target for police.
“The police knew they were about to lose all control over the riders,” Diamond said in an email to The Crime Report. “They violated constitutional rights, because they didn’t know what else to do.”
Diamond continued: “Anyone on a bike was harassed. Bikes were wrongfully seized, people wrongfully arrested due to profiling. I think police thought it would prove a point.”
This, according to Diamond is part of a pattern of discrimination and makes the situation much worse. And since a lot of the stunts riders perform are illegal on the roads, police tend to not want to help out when it comes to large rides.
“On top of it being illegal to do wheelies on the streets, a few bad apples do spoil the whole bunch. Some of the street “stunters” do give the rest of the riders a bad name,” Diamond said. “Or in the recent media’s case, a few bad stories spoil all the stories and all the events and everyone’s opinions on them.”
And despite some of the video that show riders taunting cops, Diamond said that the entire street stunting community is being labeled unfairly.
“I think the public needs to think about it all differently, but with all the bad media, it’s hard to change people’s point of view,” he said.
“Drunk drivers claim a large numbers of lives each year. Stunt riders for the most part are only risking their own lives.
“We are just regular people, teachers, doctors, police officers, moms and dads seeking out some fun.”
Despite its name, “Ride of the Century,” is an annual event.
The group that started the ride, Streetfighterz, used the Internet to attract followers. And it sold videos of highway actions so people could see the potential of high-powered motorcycles for elaborate stunts.
“Why do people want to skydive?” Adam Hunziker one of the founders of Streetfighterz asked the Riverfront Times in September.
“Why would you want to jump out of an airplane 50,000 feet in the air? Why would you want to ski down an 80-degree-incline on a mountain? These are things that are human nature. People are thrill-seekers, addicts of adrenaline.”
Shawn Stewart, 36, has been riding street bikes for most of his life. He has ridden with some big groups in and around Houston, Texas and says that, for the most part, it's a select few giving the whole riding community a bad name.
“On one ride, it started out fine,” Stewart told The Crime Report. “But as we rode, more and more riders started to show off, and finally one took a spill and banged himself up pretty good.”
Stewart said one concession might be providing places like parking lots for riders to perform.
“For the most part, the biker community gets a bad rap for doing street stunts,” Stewart said. “But how many street motorcycle stunt areas have you heard of? They have skate parks, bmx parks, and motorcross tracks but nowhere for these guys to cut loose.”
In years past, police agencies in Missouri have played a cat and mouse game with the riders from the Ride of the Century, prompting them to bolster patrols on the ground and in the air.
In 2012, according St. Louis County Police, to the increased presence accounted for 19 arrests — including two for drug offenses — 63 traffic tickets issued and 18 motorcycles seized along with three handguns. They also said that there was no reports of property damage and no reports of violent crime.
An additional step the St. Louis County Police made was mailing letters to the ticketed riders insurance providers to let them know how reckless their policyholders were.
Before this year's race, the Missouri State Police met with the organizers to head off potential problems.
The meeting didn't go well.
In an interview with The Riverfront Times, race organizer James Vaughn said he “felt bombarded” and the authorities weren't there to help.
Although he gave a map to the authorities detailing the riders' route, bikers went a different way.
In New York, motorcyclists planning to participate in the swarm said they felt harassed by police.
“There were police in every spot possible that motorcycles meet up in New York to stop that,” Hollywood Stuntz organizer Jamie Lao said in an interview with Global Grind.com.
Lao claimed that the riders caught by the video in violent actions were not affiliated with his group. He couldn't identify them.
So far, there's little meeting ground between the two sides.
But outrage from the public has put law enforcement on the defensive—and could lead to a tougher response.
“We're talking about quality of life issues here,” said former Connecticut chief John DeCarlo, now an associate professor of Law and Police Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
According to DeCarlo, cops might be most effective by tapping riders' wallets.
Police could, for instance, step up enforcement of city codes governing registration and safety of vehicles, from noise restrictions to handlebar regulations.
But, he added, “I wouldn't rule out states coming up with some legislation against this kind of activity.”
John Sodaro is a former New York City Police Officer and graduate student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He welcomes comments from readers.