What to do when you witness a violent crime in NYC

The Bystander Effect

As New Yorkers, we live in a city that prides itself on minding its own business. We see a lot, and we hear a lot. From an early age, we’re taught not to get involved in other people’s arguments, refrain from eye contact on the train, and keep our heads down and walk away if a situation escalates. Growing up, I thought this was just part of being a “good New Yorker, “but this phenomenon happens all over the world. It even has a name: The Bystander Effect.

The name dates back to 1964 when a woman named Kitty Genovese was brutally raped and murdered outside her apartment complex in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens. The New York Times reported that 38 neighbors witnessed the attack, but none took action to stop it. Although it’s been speculated that these numbers were sensationalized by the media, her murder sent shockwaves through the nation, and her case would become a significant topic in psychology textbooks going forward. The thought that someone could be murdered with dozens of people in earshot watching from the window rather than taking action to protect the victim begs the question: when should someone get involved in an attack on someone else? And in what capacity?

In the video above, a woman was assaulted by a man on a New York City train. He pulled her by her hair and yanked her out of her seat as she mouthed the words “help me” before throwing her into the wall of the train and going on a rampage through the train car. At least ten other people witnessed this and did nothing. One even filmed it. A few months back, a woman was sexually assaulted on a train in Philadelphia. An off-duty SEPTA worker called the police while onlookers either filmed on their smartphones or left to a different train car. The assault lasted for 6 minutes before police arrived and apprehended the suspect. Situations like this are becoming more and more frequent in cities across the nation, and it seems like every time they occur some things remain constant: the victim always looks to others for help to no avail, there are always several witnesses, and there is always someone (if not multiple people) filming. These are the harsh realities of today’s society. We have become so desensitized to the suffering of others that we feel more comfortable filming and sharing these situations than intervening. Don’t be a hero. Just do what you can and do it right.

Here’s an example of 4 different ways to help people bypass the bystander effect:
  1. Call 911. Reporting the incident as it occurs is tremendously important and will go further in helping the victim than posting about it on social media. With a strong police presence at many train stations (some even have precincts located in the station itself), it’s not unrealistic for police to be close enough to aid the victim. In some cases police may not arrive in time, there may not be any cellular service, or the threat may be too immediate to wait on help.

  2. Ask if the victim needs help – Verbally ask if the victim needs help and make your presence known.

  3. Create a barrier – These instances call for a different approach. The first step when a 911 call is not viable is to create a barrier between the victim and the attacker. If you feel that your skills and physical stature are enough to negate the threat then create the barrier yourself.

  4. Recruit – If you feel the threat is too imposing, recruit other bystanders to rise to the occasion. There’s strength in numbers, and once one person agrees to join you, it’s likely that more will follow.

It’s important that you don’t act recklessly and thrust yourself into danger. The goal is to deescalate the situation, not make it a bigger issue. Moments like these can be intimidating for onlookers, but if we were put in the victim’s shoes, wouldn’t we want to be helped rather than watched?

As the number of these cases rises and gains attention (both on mainstream news outlets and social media), we see a public outcry for change, but sadly things have remained the same. The bystander effect is a very real phenomenon, and in a city like New York, it’s easy to turn a blind eye to situations like these. It’s unfair to ask anyone to be a hero and place themselves in danger for someone else, but what if you were that stranger on a train? At KME we believe that you should be the change you want to see in the world.

Be an upstander, not a bystander. You just might save someone’s life.