Is ‘bystander effect’ why no one called 911 about abusive videos?

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People posted harsh reactions to the live videos of a mentally disabled 18-year-old man being abused in a West Side apartment, but no one called police. | Screenshot

When videos of a mentally disabled 18-year-old man being abused in a West Side apartment were streamed on Facebook Live earlier this month, many of the people who viewed them posted harsh reactions.

“Her profile page is public everyone should blast her on there,” one commenter wrote.

Many people posted scowling-face emojis, far outnumbering those who posted thumbs-up icons. A few people even wrote that the police or FBI should be made aware of the videos.

But no one who saw the videos called 911 to report the abuse. The videos went live hours before the police became aware of them, said Anthony Guglielmi, chief spokesman for the Chicago Police Department.

One expert says the lack of 911 calls in the case could represent what’s been called the “bystander effect,” a phenomenon in which the more witnesses there are to a crime, the less likely anyone is willing to help.

It also could signify that people don’t believe what they see on social media.

“We might draw a parallel to the ‘little boy who cried wolf’ story,” said Kipling Williams, a professor of psychological sciences at Purdue University. “After a while, people simply don’t believe the events when so many have been faked.”

Four people are accused of holding the 18-year-old captive for about five hours, forcing him to drink toilet water and cutting his scalp with a knife. All four — Tanishia Covington, 24, her sister Brittany Covington, 18, and Jordan Hill and Tesfaye Cooper, both 18 — have been charged with aggravated kidnapping and committing a hate crime.


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The videos gained national attention, perhaps, because one of the defendants says, “F – – – Trump!” and “F – – – white people.”

The victim is white and the defendants are black. They were taken into custody on Jan. 3 after a woman who lives in the building where the Covington sisters reside called the police to complain about noise coming from their apartment.

Officers found the disoriented victim walking on a nearby street and called an ambulance for him. Police quickly linked the defendants to the alleged abuse.

Detectives didn’t learn of the videos until hours later, when they found them on their own, Guglielmi said.

“In the case of the [alleged] hate crime, local and national media outlets brought it to the attention of the police press office hours after [the video] was posted, but detectives had already located it and were already in the beginning stages of the investigation,” he said.

No one tagged the police department on any of its social media channels about the videos prior to detectives discovering them, Guglielmi said.

The videos were taken down by Facebook after detectives saw them.

A Facebook spokeswoman said the videos were removed because “we do not allow people to celebrate or glorify crimes.”

“In many instances, though, when people share this type of content, they are doing so to condemn violence or raise awareness about it. In that case, the video would be allowed.”

People can report objectionable videos to Facebook while they’re still live, according to the company. Facebook employees monitor videos that reach a high level of popularity — even when they have not been reported  — and company reviewers can interrupt a live stream when they see a violation of Facebook’s community standards.

Facebook declined to say whether it communicated with the police about the videos.

While people didn’t feel compelled to call the police about the videos, people from across the country have donated more than $165,000 to the Crystal Lake man through a campaign.

A New York Times story in 1964 drew worldwide attention to the phenomenon of the so-called “bystander effect” of watching a crime and failing to contact the authorities.

After Kitty Genovese was sexually assaulted and stabbed to death, the newspaper reported that 38 neighbors watched and did nothing.

Later, parts of the story were debunked. New reporting in recent years found most of the witnesses didn’t see the attack, although many heard it. And two neighbors later claimed to have called the cops, although police logs didn’t record those calls.

Whatever the facts are surrounding Genovese’s death, it set off studies of how a crowd reacts to a crime.

“Diffusion of responsibility is a valid phenomenon,” Williams said. “You figure other people took care of it.

Another theory for why no one called 911 to report the abuse in the videos last week is that they may have doubted the authenticity of what they were witnessing, Williams said.

“We’re becoming inundated by fake news, so that we doubt the veracity of anything we read or see, even in the newspapers,” he said. “When you doubt the authenticity, you won’t respond. You won’t call the cops when you think it’s fake.”

The lack of cooperation from witnesses is a huge and long-standing problem for the Chicago Police Department — one of the reasons for its dismal rate in solving murders.

Police say the lack of cooperation goes beyond witnesses’ apathy. For years, police have said they have been dealing with a “no-snitch code” among gang members and others in society who mistrust the police.

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