The jury watched a surveillance video from the Apple Store, where two employees stood next to a wall adjoining Lululemon and listened. In court, Jana Svrzo, one of the two, quoted the words she heard that night. One voice said: “Talk to me. Don’t do this.” Later, another quietly said: “God help me. Please help me.”
The video shows the two employees eventually returning to work. The other employee, Ricardo Rios, told a detective that he thought the noise was “drama,” not violence. The store’s security guard didn’t hear anything; he was listening to his iPod. No one called the police.
The testimony enraged many people, who wondered how anyone could hear “help me” and not jump into action. On Twitter, there were calls for the Apple employees to also be charged in Murray’s death.
The trial is over, but one question remains: How could any human ignore a plea for help?
It’s a question I faced all too closely three years ago, in a situation far less tragic than Murray’s case but far more common. I was walking home late on a Saturday night in Adams Morgan. The sidewalks were dotted with a few others, and a small crowd had gathered in a parking lot next to a church on Kalorama Road. I didn’t feel alone, so I didn’t worry when three teenagers walked over to me.
They surrounded me, grabbing me in ways that would leave bruises. I shouted at them to leave me alone. One pulled at my purse, but I didn’t let go. I held my ground because so many people were staring. At any moment, I knew someone would shout, “Hey, leave her alone,” and it would be over. But no one did.
Then a punch. A fist with a ring cut a gash along my ear. I fell to the ground. The teenagers walked away. Although there were at least a dozen people near me that night, I had never felt so alone.
For decades, psychologists have been studying the “bystander effect,” a theory that people are less likely to intervene during an emergency if others are around. It stems from the case of Kitty Genovese, who was murdered in 1964 outside a Queens apartment building; dozens of people heard her struggle, but no one intervened. Back then, the emergency number 911 had not debuted yet, let alone cellphones to text tips to police. Although technology has changed dramatically in nearly 50 years, human nature has not.
In case after case, witnesses to crimes have frozen in place. Their gut may signal that something is wrong, but they do nothing. Maybe they do not act because no one around them is doing so. Maybe they assume that someone else will respond. Maybe they’re stopped by a concern for their own safety.
“It is a phenomenon that is not new,” said David Mitchell, chief of the University of Maryland’s police department and a former superintendent of the Maryland State Police. “People are pretty good at checking their feelings of concern or fear. They need to not do that.”
The sounds coming from Lululemon that night in March alarmed an Apple employee enough for her to listen at the wall, to sense that something might be wrong, to reach out to another employee for his opinion.
Think back to the last time you sensed that someone might need help — maybe it was a heated argument next door, a stumbling drunk, a questionable Facebook post, the sound of a crash, a scream, a murmur, a frightened look on someone’s face. If you didn’t take action, why not?
Many people walk away from these situations. Very few are confronted with the outcome.
The wound I suffered healed with the help of a few stitches and in no way compares to the 331 that ended Murray’s life. But it took that experience for me to have the foresight to be the person in a crowd who calls 911 at the slightest hint of an emergency — even if I’m not sure what is happening, even if the dispatcher seems annoyed, even if others have already called. I’d rather overreact occasionally than let anyone else get hurt or simply feel alone in the company of others.
In the past few years, many colleges have begun to train students and professors to intervene when they see someone who might be in trouble. Often, these bystanders can get lifesaving assistance to victims of abuse, sexual assault, bullying, alcoholism, severe depression, eating disorders and other problems long before the victims would ask for the help themselves.
Sometimes these efforts are prompted by tragedy. Last year, University of Virginia lacrosse player Yeardley Love was allegedly beaten to death by her ex-boyfriend, George Huguely. This wasn’t the first time Huguely had become violent — a fact school officials say they learned too late.
Love’s death has prompted frank talks about what can be done to prevent future tragedies. John Casteen, then president of U-Va., made this plea at a vigil: “Don’t hear a scream, don’t watch abuse, don’t hear stories of abuse from your friends — and keep quiet. Speak out.”
Three years ago, as I pulled myself up from the street, a red station wagon slammed on its brakes. The driver was on the phone with the police and told me to climb into the back seat. The family of three, headed home from a wedding, stayed with me until the ambulance arrived. They didn’t know me, but they didn’t want me to be alone.
writes about higher education for The Washington Post.
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