"It was a fashion," said Anthony Caffee, 18 and a senior at Boys' Latin of Philadelphia Charter School. "It was just a statement to say, 'We did this.' Now it's over."
A year ago, he found himself among scores of teens who met in Center City looking for something to do. "We went downtown to shop. Someone got angry. Then there was violence." Caffee saw a woman get pushed to the ground, then a child. "I pulled my friend aside and said, 'Let's go to the movies instead.' "
Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey says the first flash mobs in 2009 caught his department flat-footed. "We had a lot of spontaneous outbreaks of violence, either rampaging through a store or attacking people. It really did strain our resources."
He asked Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel to fashion a response. Together, they put more officers on Center City streets, and police rode bikes in packs to show their power. They monitored social media. They also shared real-time information with other agencies.
Paul Levy, CEO of the Center City District, said that SEPTA police started working with school and city police and private security to blast text messages about gathering crowds to 7,000 people subscribed to an early-warning system called Alert Philadelphia.
"We try not to chase them, but to engage them," Bethel said.
Police developed relationships with dance groups like DollarBoyz, which typically invite thousands of youths to their events. "When the kids put something out on Facebook, it goes to all of their buddies," Ramsey said. "Next thing you know you have 40 kids down at LOVE Park who have no idea why they are there."
Added Bethel: "It wasn't just that police weren't doing their job. Parents weren't doing their jobs, schools weren't doing their jobs, rec centers weren't doing their jobs. Everyone had a piece."
Ramsey said his department worked with downtown high schools to stagger dismissal times to keep rival groups from clashing at SEPTA stations.
And he credits Family Court Judge Kevin Dougherty for sending a strong message. "I'm not playing," the judge told defendants. Dougherty wanted to repair damage, said Bennie Price, deputy director of juvenile probation. That's how 10 of the first-time offenders spent eight weeks at the scene of the crime, dressing mannequins and greeting people at the Macy's store they had marauded.
"I think he wanted to show these young people the effect they had on the lives of not only the customers but the employees," Price said.
City Council extended curfew hours and locations. Antonio Mason, another Boys' Latin senior, said the first time he was stopped after dark, police drew their weapons after a neighbor in West Philadelphia suspected he and a friend were up to no good.
The next time, an officer approached more evenly, and when he learned where the 18-year-old went to school, started talking to him about his plans for college.
"If a positive message is given, a positive message is given back," said Mason's classmate Brennen Malone, 18. In drama class last year, the three worked on a play about flash mobs that explored the cause and effect of rampaging.
Everett Gillison, the deputy mayor for public safety, said that adults must continue to meet with kids, work with them, understand them.
"Knock on wood we haven't have any major disruptions," he said. "We're able to build on this engagement and hopefully that will help with our larger issue, which is black male violence in our city, which is something we are still working on to get right."
Contact Daniel Rubin at email@example.com, 215-854-5917, on Twitter @danielrubin or on Facebook at http://ph.ly/DanRubin.