Newsletter 01 – Genovese Syndrome – The Deadly Bystander Effect

It was one of the most shameful murders in police records. In 1964, Catherine Genovese was violently attacked by a man with a knife, and though there were 38 people who were aware that something was amiss, some even hearing her screams for help, no one called the police until more than half-an-hour after the attack began. And by that time she was already fatally injured. She would later die on the way to the hospital.

Was this a fluke? I don’t think so. Sandra Zahler was brutally beaten to death on Christmas 1974 and again her neighbours hear screams for help but do nothing. And a friend told me about  the brutal beating and robbery of a teenage girl at a Seattle bus terminal. Not only did this happen in front of witnesses, there were three uniformed security personnel on the scene. No one did anything.

In my Women’s Crime Prevention Talks, I teach that one of the features of a dangerous area is that you are away from help. In those areas, people are unable to help you in 30 seconds or less if you are attacked. However, we should not think that we are safer in a larger crowd. There is such a phenomenon called the ‘bystander effect’, when people will not step forward to help if they do not see other people stepping forward to help.

Why does this happen?

There are many possible reasons. One, a bystander may be unsure if help is needed. So when he/she sees others doing nothing, he/she thinks everything is OK. In other words, everyone is waiting for someone else to act first. Two, the bystander may assume someone else has already called the police or ambulance or is taking necessary action. That way there is no need to do anything. Three, the bystander may not see any way he/she can be of help at all. So the bystander does nothing, or walks away.

What does this mean for you?

Firstly, it means that if you see a suspicious activity going on, call the police. If you are unprepared to deal with a crime situation that is the best you can do. Call police, draw attention to the crime scene, find some way to distract the attack, but make sure you keep yourself safe. Don’t be afraid to be wrong. It is better to summon the authorities wrongly and discover that you made an honest mistake, than to have someone seriously injured or die because of you refused to take practical action.

Secondly, if you are ever in a large group when you need help, realize that you may not get any help at all if you appeal to the entire group. Single out a specific person instead. For example, if you are diabetic and prone to fainting because of hypoglycaemia, don’t just call out for sugar to the whole group. Single out ONE person and say something like “You there, in the blue shirt, I’m going to faint, get me some sugar.” And do it quickly and firmly, get yourself help as soon as possible before you lose consciousness.

Finally, nothing beats being as prepared as you ever can be. When it comes to violent crime, learn what it takes to walk in safety. Attend my talks, sign up for my classes, and read my newsletters. Be proactive in preparing yourself for dangerous situations, and you may save not only your own life but other people as well.

JJ Huang
Walk In Safety ™


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Registration: email your name, handphone number and desired class time to or SMS your name, email address and desired class time to 94230900.

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About Junjie
Musician, Martial Artist and father of two boys. Rambler, thinker and compulsive teacher.

2 Responses to Newsletter 01 – Genovese Syndrome – The Deadly Bystander Effect

  1. Pingback: Newsletter (14) – 6 Tips for Preventing Kidnapping | Walk in Safety

  2. Pingback: Fighting the Bystander Effect

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