Ross Parker was chief of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Detroit for 8 years and worked as an AUSA for 28 in that office.
By Ross Parker
Over the weekend NBC News and other media reported a story of the sexual assault of a 15-year-old girl in Chicago by a group of juvenile boys. The painful media “angle” of the report was that the offenders had broadcast the brutal assault to 40 Facebook viewers, none of whom had reported the crime to police.
The Chicago Police Chief stated that he was uncertain whether any of the viewers would be charged criminally. He said that he was “disgusted” by their inaction and added, “Where are we going in society?”
The incident follows another one in Chicago in which 4 people taunted and beat a mentally disabled man and broadcast the crime, also by Facebook.
The most recent Chicago case occurred 53 years, almost to the day, after the notorious rape and murder of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese in March 1964, while observers saw and heard the brutal stabbing and her cries for help. A sensationalized New York Times article, two weeks after the murder, reported that 38 people had watched the murder and did nothing about it.
The article shocked readers across the country and came to represent a widespread “truth” about apathy in the big cities, the breakdown of the values of the 1950s, and the social anxieties of the years which followed.
Many of us became familiar with the Genovese case in our Psych 101 and Sociology textbooks in college, under the title “Bystander Effect” or “Bystander Syndrome,” as the supposed tendency of large groups of people who witness crimes to refuse either to come to the aid of the victim or to call the police. Dozens of movies, TV shows, books, and songs decried the “Bad Samaritan” tendency of people who predominated in modern life.
The problem with the story and its widespread consequences was that most of the reported “facts” were not true. Fifty years later studies showed that the events had been grossly exaggerated and inaccurate in many respects, especially the overstated number of witnesses (actually probably 5 or 6, some of whom did call the police and try to help the victim). Only one man indicated that he had seen and heard the assault and “did not want to get involved.”