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October 28th, 2009
05:21 PM ET

Gang rape raises questions about 'bystander effect'

Stephanie Chen
CNN

For more than two hours on a dark Saturday night, as many as 20 people watched or took part as a 15-year-old California girl was allegedly gang raped and beaten outside a high school homecoming dance, authorities said.

As hundreds of students gathered in the school gym, outside in a dimly lit alley where the victim was allegedly raped, police say witnesses took photos. Others laughed.

"As people announced over time that this was going on, more people came to see, and some actually participated," Lt. Mark Gagan of the Richmond Police Department told CNN.

The witnesses failed to report the crime to law enforcement, Gagan said. The victim remained hospitalized in stable condition. Police arrested five suspects and more arrests were expected.

So why didn't anyone come forward?

Criminology and psychology experts say there could be a variety of reasons why the crime wasn't reported. Several pointed to a problematic social phenomenon known as the bystander effect. It's a theory that has played out in lynchings, college riots and white-collar crimes.

Under the bystander effect, experts say that the larger the number of people involved in a situation, the less will get done.

"If you are in a crowd and you look and see that everyone is doing nothing, then doing nothing becomes the norm." explains Drew Carberry, a director at the National Council on Crime Prevention.

Carberry said witnesses can be less likely to report a crime because they reinforce each other with the notion that reporting the crime isn't necessary. Or, he says, witnesses may think another person in the crowd already reported the incident. The responsibility among the group becomes diffused.

"Kids learn at a young age when they observe bullying that they would rather not get involved because there is a power structure," Carberry adds.

The phrase bystander effect was coined in the 1960s after people watched or heard a serial killer stalk and stab a woman in two separate attacks in the Queens neighborhood of New York.

Kitty Genovese struggled with the attacker on the street and in her building. She shrieked for help and was raped, robbed and murdered. When witnesses in the building were questioned by police about why they remained silent and failed to act, one man, according to the 1964 New York Times article that broke the story, answered, "I didn't want to be involved."

Though the number of people who saw or heard Genovese struggle was eventually disputed, her case still became symbolic of a kind of crowd apathy that psychologists and social scientists call the "Genovese syndrome."

Read more about the bystander effect and the Genovese case here....

soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. Karen, Washington

    Reportedly, this young girl was meeting her father at 9:30. Did the father go to the school? Did anyone notice that the girl wasn't there?

    October 29, 2009 at 6:07 am |
  2. Zach, IA

    Michael, do you really think extending the death penalty to kids is the best way to teach morality to future generations? Think rationally, not spontaneously, before you write things that anyone can read.

    October 29, 2009 at 2:58 am |
  3. Peter

    A key problem is that virtually no one in CA can obtain a carry permit for a concealed weapon. Most people are physically unable to stop violence without a firearm

    October 29, 2009 at 2:49 am |
  4. mat s

    In many states it is a feloney to not report a feloney. This is on the books.

    October 29, 2009 at 2:44 am |
  5. Sam

    Teenagers are bombarded with images that idolize drugs, sex and violence. I don't know why the media is surprised that such behavior is considered acceptable. When I was that age it was called peer pressure. Now its bystander effect, group dynamics, and my favorite, mirrored neurons.

    October 29, 2009 at 1:43 am |
  6. Jifri

    Why didnt anyone stop it??
    Well, children these days listen to atleast 21/2 hours of music per day ,nearly 9 out of 10 have an MP3 player or CD player . guess what they are listening to..we have to play close attention to the lyrics ..what message are these singers of today telling our kids.what are the videos portraying about women.The majority of songs popular today talk about sex, drugs, and women. Sadly, the music one hears in the radio and the videos they watch, refers to women as sexual objects, and I personally think that's a shame.
    surprising that everyone is trying to find an answer to this horrible act!!

    October 29, 2009 at 1:01 am |
  7. Maurice Smith

    I couldn't image standing by someone was getting murded. God is the only bean on earth that scare me. Everone who JUST watch, should be charge too!

    October 29, 2009 at 12:10 am |
  8. Karen

    The "Bystander Effect", sounds like an excuse to me. If they turn bystander effect into a jail sentence, it may go away. How many children will be innured or killed because of this? Remember the 16 yr. old who was beat to death?

    October 28, 2009 at 11:58 pm |
  9. s Davis

    It is easy for people to look in hind sight at how police should have tried to identify a group of men loitering, but we always hear cries of "fowl" when the police do ask groups of loiterers for identification. We can't have it both ways.

    October 28, 2009 at 11:44 pm |
  10. Norman

    If by chance any of the bystanders are identify, they should have photos taking of them and giving to the news paper for the all the world to see what kind of cowards they are. It would't have took no time to pick up a cell phone and call for help.

    October 28, 2009 at 11:20 pm |
  11. Drew C Hollingsworth

    We can't prosecute the bystanders!!!?? What ever happened to "accessory to the fact"???? Like watching someone braking into a bank vault or committing some other felonious crime??? And Barok and California want to stop good decent honest people from owning firearms......

    October 28, 2009 at 11:02 pm |
  12. Jerry R Tacoma Wa

    I saw that there were witiness that photographed the rape. That is not doing anything, that is doing something, That is participation. And since girl that was raped is only 15 aren't they in possession of child pornography?

    October 28, 2009 at 10:05 pm |
  13. Zandolee

    All of the onlookers should be charged as accessories to rape.

    October 28, 2009 at 10:02 pm |
  14. michael armstrong sr. TX.

    Wheres my country at I thought I lived in a God fearing Nation where stuff like this dosnt happen any more Its past time to treat adult type crimes with adult type convictions including the death penalty kids now days have no fear of prosecution its time to imbed the fear of God into them.

    October 28, 2009 at 8:04 pm |
  15. Linda B., Ga.

    Any "known" bystanders should be charged and arrested for not reporting this HORRIBLE act. There parents should also be taken in for not raising their children properly.

    What has this World we live in come to?

    October 28, 2009 at 7:35 pm |
  16. alicenyc

    Steve VA, you are sooooooooo right.

    October 28, 2009 at 7:29 pm |
  17. steve- virginia beach, va

    Seems the so-called experts are so wrapped up in their own little world that they once again miss the fundamental issue- bystanders didn't report the crime because their parents did an inadequate job teaching them morals and values. Rationalizing the consequences of parental failure doesn't help anyone, especially the victim that their children wouldn't help.

    October 28, 2009 at 6:39 pm |