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Don't just watch: How bystanders can safely intervene in a violent situation

A train moves along the Market-Frankford Line in Philadelphia on Oct. 26, 2016. (Matt Rourke/AP)
A train moves along the Market-Frankford Line in Philadelphia on Oct. 26, 2016. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Police in Upper Darby Township outside of Philadelphia say a woman was raped on a train on Wednesday night while a carload of riders did nothing to intervene.

Officers arrested the suspect after an employee for the train service SEPTA alerted them. Police say there is train surveillance video showing the eight-minute assault, and they were also told that some riders videotaped the horrific incident.

While it remains unknown why no one stepped forward, some have pointed to the bystander effect as a reason why.

The bystander effect is a psychological phenomenon when an individual’s likelihood of helping a victim decreases when others are present in an emergency situation.

The term was coined after the 1964 murder of a young woman named Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York. Initial reporting by The New York Times stated 38 people witnessed the stabbing attack or heard her screams and did nothing.

The first reports turned out to be flawed: Some witnesses claimed to have called the police, and the number of people who actually saw the attack was overestimated.

Most people do help when violet situations arise, says Yolanda Edrington, director of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. But when talking to passive bystanders who didn’t act in dangerous scenarios, one of the most common answers is that they froze out of fear for their own safety.

If a bystander starts videotaping, it could be used as a tactic to distract the assaulter. But in documenting the assault, Edrington says to check in with the victim to ask how the video should be utilized.

“Do they want this to go to the authorities? What is the thing that they want to happen?” she says. “Because that’s what the bystander is there for — to support the person that is being targeted.”

But videotaping often isn’t enough to stop an assault, she says, and responding physically can escalate the situation.

Be an engaged bystander by using disruption methods that don’t completely draw attention to yourself — like spilling a drink or dropping something, she says. Distracting the assaulter can give an opportunity for the victim to get away.

Put the old saying “see something, say something” into action, she says. If you feel you can’t act alone, Edrington suggests asking others around you to join in on verbally confronting the assaulter.

The purpose of a bystander is to stop what’s happening — not to become the hero, she says.

“We are trying to de-escalate, not escalate,” she says, “but we all know that not doing something is never the answer.”

For more intervention strategies from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, specifically in regards to taking action before, during or after any form of sexual violence occurs, click here.

Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill RyanSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.