A horrific sexual assault on a train last Wednesday night that began on the SEPTA Market-Frankford El around 11 p.m. and culminated in a man’s arrest for sexual assault at the 69th Street Transportation Center in Upper Darby sent shock waves around the nation.
Many people wondered how the other passengers could stand by and do nothing other than watch and record it with their cellphones as the attack occurred before their eyes.
“We need to be a team to fight violence and crime,” said Radnor Police Superintendent Chris Flanagan. “We ask the community to at least call 911.”
Former Upper Darby Police Superintendent Mike Chitwood did not mince words, calling those passengers who watched but did not help the victim “cowards.”
“It’s true. It takes a coward to not become involved in something so heinous,” said Chitwood. “If you don’t want to get involved physically, at least call 911.”
Chitwood says he can’t fathom how people could record something with their cellphones and post it to social media, as reportedly happened in this case, and not call the police to help the victim.
“I read the headlines and couldn’t believe it,” said Chitwood. When he was the Upper Darby police superintendent, he instructed his officers to get involved in calls that came in once the trains reached the terminal.
“We make the arrest,” he said, noting the department had a good relationship with SEPTA despite the jurisdictional jockeying.
“How anybody can see something like that and not do anything, I believe they’re a coward. If you can put it on social media you should have gotten involved…Everybody’s got a phone,” he said.
Nowadays, “it’s more violent than it ever has been,” Chitwood said. “I spent my time doing cops and robbers. I’ve never seen it like this.”
But Jeremy Tyler, Psy.D. with the Penn Medicine Center for Treatment and Study of Anxiety, said the issue of bystanders who don’t get involved has been studied extensively since the Kitty Genovese case from 1964, where a woman was stabbed to death in New York City while 38 witnesses did nothing.
Bystanders tend to think someone else will do something, he said.
“Another thing is fear,” he said. “Fear actually motivates people a lot.”
Seeing violence happen triggers people’s “fight or flight” response, he noted. And not everyone wants to fight or “jump in,” he said.
There is also “an individual’s choice” among the bystanders. They wonder if they do step in, “Is something going to happen to me? Am I going to get hurt?”
In first aid classes, people are taught to point to someone and look them in the eye and tell them to call 911 while they perform CPR, rather than just direct the command to a general group of people.
People also tend to think there’s safety in numbers, but they’re wrong, Tyler said. And if you’re a victim, it’s best not to be in a large group of strangers, he added. Rather, you’re more likely to get help if you’re in a smaller group and know the people or if people can identify with you.
And as for the people videotaping the incident, they may have assumed that they were helping, like the bystanders in the George Floyd case whose videos led to the arrest of the police officers involved, said Tyler.
In the wake of the SEPTA rape, some have suggested Pennsylvania should join the 29 states, including Ohio and Massachusetts, with “Bad Samaritan” laws compelling people to either intervene on behalf of crime victims or report crimes they see. According to associate professor of Law and Political Science and co-director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston Law Center Zachary D. Kaufman, those laws “are often criticized for their potential negative effects, including that they may increase false reporting of crime, that authorities may apply them in a discriminatory fashion, [and] that they may exacerbate the problem of mass incarceration,” he wrote in 2018.
Tyler was uncertain about passing such a law in Pennsylvania but said it might be helpful in some ways to set a tone.
“I’m not a policy wonk by any means, but I think it could be helpful,” said Tyler. “I think the message that we expect people in the community to help each other and to say something, it would be helpful.”
And as for people being indifferent to a crime that happens right in front of them, it’s not a novel situation, he said.
“It happened in the 60s so it’s not something new,” said Tyler. “It’s a long-standing sort of social-psychological thing that we can keep trying to be better with.”
Chitwood was also uncertain if a law compelling people to help would work because of how “woke” society has become. It would likely be challenged in the courts.
“Common sense should be the dictate of the day. Get involved. Stop heinous crime,” Chitwood said.