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Don’t Just Stand There – Do Something

Home & Community Safety

A community where people intervene for the good of others is a safer community.

“The Bystander Effect”

Over forty years ago, Kitty Genovese was attacked and murdered outside her New York City apartment building. Thirty-eight people heard her calls for help as they watched from behind their apartment windows. The attack lasted more than half an hour. After it was over, someone called the police, who arrived within two minutes.

That 1964 incident became a textbook case. Why did so many witnesses fail to act? Phoning the police would involve no risk, and likely would have saved Ms. Genovese’s life. Social psychologists Latane and Darley1 suggested reasons such as diffusion of responsibility or failure to recognize the true significance of the incident. They concluded that the more people witness an event, the less likely each individual is to intervene. This became known as the Bystander Effect.

When a violent incident or emergency occurs, the Bystander Effect is not a mere academic concept.

In an unpublicized case in 2003, seven young men robbed and knifed the 16-year old nephew of a Canada Safety Council staff member, who happened to be walking through a downtown park in a major Canadian city. No one helped the victim or called the police. If the attackers had been caught, they could have faced criminal charges instead of likely going on to commit more crimes. Someone in the crowd must have had a cell phone. Why didn’t anyone at least call the police?

Numerous incidents like this happen in communities across Canada. Police estimate that only one out of every 10 swarmings is reported. The victims, often teenagers, are left scarred and traumatized for life. Such attacks lead many Canadians to fear their communities are unsafe. This fear only makes matters worse by creating abandoned, dangerous streets.

It’s not that Canadians don’t act when they see an urgent situation. There are countless examples of successful intervention, including people who have risked their life to save a stranger. Nonetheless, police and community safety leaders would like to see more bystander involvement. Simply by reporting an urgent situation, a witness can prevent it from becoming more serious.

Everyone Can Help

How can the power of bystanders be harnessed in the interest of public safety? Several factors can encourage people to help strangers in distress.

When a victim makes it very clear help is needed, people are more likely to intervene. Don’t expect bystanders to figure out you’re in trouble. Make sure they know. For example, look directly at someone in the crowd and ask for help.

Perceived ability to help and perceived risk also determine whether or not a bystander will help. For example, the ubiquitous cell phone empowers users to call for help from almost anywhere, immediately and with little or no risk. Close to six million emergency calls are placed from mobile phones in Canada each year – about half of all calls to emergency numbers. Every day, thousands of Canadians use mobile phones to call for help when they see a crash, a crime in progress or a life-threatening medical emergency.

Police urge witnesses of crimes to be observant and to call 9-1-1 as quickly as possible. Give a good description of the perpetrators, where they came from and where they go after the incident.

In 1993, two-year-old James Bulger was murdered in the UK by two older children. Ironically, 38 witnesses saw the toddler being led away against his will by two older boys. UK researchers looked at the role of bystanders in the tragedy. Dr. Mark Levine2found that they did not intervene because they thought the three boys were brothers and considered “family” a private space. After examining other instances of bystander intervention and non-intervention, Dr. Levine concluded that members of a group take responsibility for the safety of others they see as belonging to the same group — and that the sense of group membership can be broadened.

All Canadians must do their part to ensure we continue to live in a safe and civilized society. When you see someone in trouble just think — if you were that person, what would you want passers-by to do?

9-1-1 Tips for Mobile Phone Users

  • Calls to 9-1-1 are free of charge.
  • Do not pre-program 9-1-1 into your phone’s speed-dial function.
  • Dial 9-1-1 only when the safety of people or property is at risk (e.g. a fire, crime in progress or medical emergency).
  • Provide your 10-digit phone number so the operator can call you back.
  • Give your precise location or the location of the emergency.
  • Describe the emergency clearly.
  • Stay on the line until the operator tells you to hang up. Then, leave your phone turned on in case the operator calls back.

1 Latane, Bibb & Darley, John M. (1968). Group inhibition of bystander intervention in emergencies. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 10(3), 215-221.

2Levine, Mark (2002). Walk On By? Relational Justice Bulletin (Issue 16, Nov 2002)

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