The Bystander Effect
Being a bystander is a completely normal and logical reaction to witnessing public displays of violence and conflict,
Now that we’ve settled it’s not appropriate to choke hold someone being belligerent on the subway, how do we solve anti-social behavior and public crisis issues on public transit? This is mostly a metro rail problem as bus drivers generally block people from entering buses who appear as though they’ll be disruptive. And in instances where people are disruptive, the bus driver is made instantly aware and can alert authorities. This may provide hints to mass transit problems in trains too.
Whenever a video of a crime or injustice goes viral, there’s always hoards of people comfortably behind their phone screens berating the bystanders for their inaction and I despise it. The idea that Twitter just happens to be full of Good Samaritans who always know the right intervention decisions and yet oddly they seldom appear in real life situations just doesn’t add up. People who talk big online about how calm and collected they’d be in an instance of public conflict or issues, are probably the same ones sitting there poker-faced when it occurs.
Regarding the killing of Jordan Neely, people on Twitter seem shocked that occupants of a subway car that visually looks like a microcosm of NYC: Latino, Black, Middle Eastern and other minorities in the photos are ignoring or gawking at Daniel Penny’s choke-hold. Which — if they’re truly the avid transit riders people online claim they are — shouldn’t be shocking. If you see two people tussling on the ground and don’t fully know the circumstances, you’re not going to intervene.
People freeze up. Not even when conflict occurs, just abnormal disruption like frantic screaming. Even a big man like me freezes up. I’m on transit because I need to get somewhere and someone screaming to themselves or suffering from an issue is not something I feel capable of handling. To be clear, in almost every single situtation where someone suffering a mental health issue acts out on transit, nothing happens. But nobody wants to be there when something does happen. Fighting isn’t fun and in a violent country where every day on the news people lose their lives, I’d rather just be a bystander than tomorrow’s headline. Our life is worth way too much frankly to be lost over some dumb fight on transit I have no stake in.
I can post a deluge of recent news stories on people losing their lives or being severely injured intervening in fights and even non-violent disputes. You have to make judgement calls about how much your life is worth when intervening in possibly violent situations in a notoriously violent country by 1st world standards where any coward may have a gun or knife waiting. You may get hero points online by commentators but they aren’t going to pay for your medical bills or your funeral if it goes south. Above all, it’s always a bad idea to casually intervene against people who clearly have nothing to lose.
For example, Jordan Neely’s shouting which effectively amounted to: I have nothing to lose, understandably doesn’t get the subway car running up to figure out what’s wrong. And that’s okay, they’re not equipped at intervention and they shouldn’t be expected to.
Individual intervention obsession isn’t just a posturing left-wing thing either, the right is obsessed with shooting people or using fatal violence as an answer to any and all conflicts. Hence their celebration of Daniel Penny. Rather than just informing the police whose job it is to investigate and defuse, wide swaths of the country think it’s alright to just let off shots at movement in their yards or homes. Hence story after story of kids being shot for going into the wrong yard, families picking off relatives for entering the house late and so on. A guy in Texas just obliterated a whole family next door for simply asking him to stop being a nuisance.
The truth is that people are bystanders because they’re not equipped to be interventionists. And when they do intervene they often don’t know what they’re doing and end up harming or killing people or getting harmed or killed. Viral and recycled tweets of a calm chip dude defusing a conflict on public transit is sweet and all but it’s only as good as the willingness to listen by the people in conflict. And in a country where your choices are driving and taking transit, it’s obviously not a winning message for transit to say you should be expected to become intervention experts or just move if someone’s having a public health crisis.
The answer is relatively simple: we as a society should hire people who are actually trained in intervening in various conflicts. Ideally this would be the police, but the police are mostly trained in ending violent conflicts with violence, and it rubs off into their non-violent interventions. Hence our theoretical response teams should be solely focused and trained on specific issues related to drug addiction, mental illness or public conflicts. These people would ideally command a significant degree of expertise on intervention and be summoned as easily as a police officer could. The problem is that we’re sorely lacking in an effective way to call them.
I’ve found myself on subway rides a few times where I wanted a wellness check done on people who appeared unwell harassing people or were screaming erratically. But there aren’t any options to call besides police departments and I don’t desire to see this person potentially harmed by cops, or the implicit threat of violence police officers pose prematurely frightening the individual. Thankfully cities like Berkeley in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests have rolled out a non-police crisis intervention hotline and mobile unit team precisely for situations like this. Every city in the United States should roll one out too. Giving citizens the ability to call for help in the event of unwell, anti-social behavior with unarmed experts as the first team before cops would make riders feel a lot safer.
Of course rolling out these programs are not easy. In 2018, my friends at East Bay for Everyone pushed against mass calls for more police officers and got a program for unarmed staff to walk around stations, assist riders and defuse conflicts. The program’s been effective but it’s been dwarfed by police hiring since. The main issues we ran into is that police departments obviously oppose such programs as they view them as anti-police politics. Though I didn’t, I thought it freed them up. And the transit unions didn’t like the idea of civilian transit workers defusing public conflicts that had potential for violence.
It’s funny that civilian answers to non-violent disputes and issues have been coded as a radical leftist position. Berkeley’s first police chief August Vollmer, considered the national father of modern American policing, would ironically agree that it’s a waste of police officers’ time to enforce laws on drug addicts and mentally illness. Solving social issues and vices is an expert’s prerogative, not a police officers. But American society now runs to police departments as the singular answer to any and every issue we face in the public.
Why not just let police departments handle this alone? Because they’re not effective. NYC has 3,500 transit police and obviously they couldn’t help Neely, a complaint echoed by passengers in Neely’s subway car. Many transit officers aren’t even walking around, riding in cars and patrolling but instead they’re conducting dragnets to catch fare evaders and vendors. Despite fare evasion being a non-violent, insignificant crime. Every cop writing fare citations is one less cop protecting people. And when they do patrol around they’re often bunched up in massive groups rather than conducting patrols in two-person teams. It’s fiscally irresponsible to fund additional police on transit systems until the two aforementioned issues are fixed.
Above all, when it comes to issues like being unwell and un-housed or addicted and you’re having a public health crisis, medical experts and crisis intervention teams are the ones equipped to engage. I want them to make the call if a certain mental breakdown or hysterical behavior warrants a police response, ejection or no action at all. I, and most likely you, are neither equipped to evaluate psychosis behavior, drug addiction or intervene in it.
Look at the Mobile Crisis Intervention Team in Berkeley launching this summer and try to get variants up and running in your towns, cities and transit systems. That’s the true public safety answer to displays of mental breakdowns and addiction on public transit — experts who study public health. Not just moving to another car. Not the police. And usually not you.
Next this week: How To be Safe on Transit. While the aforemention program would do wonders, it’s not the society we live in at the moment.
Thank you Darrell for your insight and council into these episodes that seemly occur with greater frequency. There is value and agency in bringing greater awareness on the progression of this public health crisis.
Is there any hard data on these kinds of programs? Or examples of foreign countries that have widely adopted this model? If this hasn't been shown to work in Europe or Japan or Korea, for example, then I'm much more skeptical of the odds of success.
But I'm skeptical anyway, because following the links it seems like the programs are haphazardly funded and staffed and not setup with any accountability or measurements and are relying on police a large percentage of the time in their current operations anyway.
I'd also like to see data on how often the current approach (call the police) goes badly for the troubled individual. That has to be weighed against the % of time that the new crisis teams fail to compel the troubled individual to change their behavior in whatever way they need to vs how often they are successful in some way. Any approach, whether it's the police or a crisis team, is going to have failures when dealing with mentally sick people experiencing a crisis in public. There's no magic bullet.