Can the 'bystander effect' explain Philadelphia train riders' reaction to a woman's rape?

·4 min read

For more than 40 minutes, a woman was harassed by a stranger on a public transit train in Philadelphia and then raped while bystanders held up their cellphones, seemingly to record the assault, police said.

The attack happened last Wednesday night on the city's transit system, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, or SEPTA. The incident led to calls from police urging the public "to be our partners and to watch out for other riders" after officials said passengers did not physically intervene or call 911.

Experts have long studied how people react in dangerous or distressing public situations, often turning to a psychological theory known as the bystander effect to describe people who are less likely to help victims when they are in group settings.

"When people are in public, they are less likely to show their concern about something than if they are alone," said psychologist Bibb Latané. "And what that means is that ... when they see other people aren't yet doing anything, they may be led to think that 'well, maybe there's no reason to do anything.'"

Latané and his colleagues helped popularize the bystander effect — or bystander inhibition, as he now refers to it — after the murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, New York, in 1964.

Early reports about the killing said dozens of people witnessed the murder and did not intervene or call the police. The reports were later proven wrong after it was determined that some people either did call the police or tried to help Genovese.

While the bystander effect may explain how some people respond to victims in public situations, Dr. Saumya Davé, a psychiatrist, said other factors have to be considered, such as the fear of intervening.

"People might freeze when they see something really scary, especially if the person who is committing the crime or doing the attack has a weapon or seems like they could be overpowering," Davé said.

She said some people also may not know the proper way to help the victim, so "they may not know how to intervene."

"When nobody is doing anything, it just perpetuates no one else doing anything. There is a lack of awareness in general about how to best intervene in different situations," she said.

Latané said it's hard to know exactly what stopped the riders from intervening or calling the police, but he said that for some, capturing the incident on camera could have been their way of helping the victim.

"A lot of people have credited recording police and incidents as being a very positive thing to do," he said. "If I was doing something wrong and people started pointing a cellphone at me and recording it, that's going to make me think twice about doing it."

Davé agreed.

"A lot of people feel that taking a video of the incident is helpful to the victim so they can go back to police and share that evidence," she said.

Image: The Market-Frankford Elevated Line runs between Upper Darby and Frankford in Lower Northeast Philadelphia. (NBC Philadelphia)
Image: The Market-Frankford Elevated Line runs between Upper Darby and Frankford in Lower Northeast Philadelphia. (NBC Philadelphia)

Over the past few years, bystanders have recorded numerous incidents of police brutality, such as the arrest of George Floyd in Minneapolis or the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The video has often played a crucial role in the officers' being disciplined or charged.

Police said that in last week's alleged assault, the victim and the suspect, identified as Fiston Ngoy, 35, got on at the same stop in North Philadelphia. Surveillance video showed the woman pushing Ngoy away repeatedly as he harassed her, according to an arrest affidavit.

The video then showed Ngoy ripping the woman's pants down and assault her, the affidavit says. Ngoy was arrested on rape and assault charges and is being held on $180,000 bail. His public defender did not immediately return a request for comment Wednesday.

SEPTA Police Chief Thomas J. Nestel III did not say how many passengers were on the train but noted that "there were very few notifications to the police."

No calls were made from riders to 911 in Philadelphia, Nestel said. Police are still waiting to see whether 911 calls were made to Delaware County, which covers the train's last two stops. The attack was eventually reported after a SEPTA employee saw what was happening.

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