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Tips for how and when to intervene if you witness an emergency like last week’s rape on SEPTA

People can be active bystanders by taking direct or indirect action when they see harm being done, experts say.

Riders walk past SEPTA's Market-Frankford Line at the 15th Street stop. Transit authorities said a woman was raped this week on the train line and no one had called 911.
Riders walk past SEPTA's Market-Frankford Line at the 15th Street stop. Transit authorities said a woman was raped this week on the train line and no one had called 911.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / MCT

» UPDATE: Prosecutors on Oct. 21 said evidence refutes claim that passengers may have filmed the rape of a woman on a SEPTA commuter train instead of calling police. Read more.

Other passengers were in a SEPTA train car while a woman was being raped on the Market-Frankford line on Wednesday night, but no one called 911, according to authorities — who reminded the public this weekend to do something when witnessing an emergency.

Experts call that being an active bystander: someone who steps in — when safe to do so — rather than ignoring a harmful situation. Active bystander tactics can be used to disrupt any type of harm, from a violent assault like the one that occurred on SEPTA to everyday harassment in the workplace.

After hate crimes against Asians in the United States rose when the coronavirus pandemic began, for instance, advocates called on bystanders to intervene if they saw people being harassed. And bystanders’ smartphone videos have played critical roles in exposing police brutality, such as the murder of George Floyd, and catalyzing protests and other action.

Situations where bystanders need to speak up because of the COVID-19 pandemic — such as asking someone to wear a mask on an airplane or in a store that requires it — have also proliferated.

But many factors keep people from taking action: They freeze, they think no one around them believes anything is wrong, they think somebody else has more responsibility to deal with it, they’re not sure whether help is needed, or they’re afraid of being wrong, said Sharon Tracy, executive director of Massachusetts-based Quabbin Mediation, which runs a program called Training Active Bystanders.

Fear of danger also inhibits action, sometimes with good reason: It’s not always safe to intervene. Those who teach bystander training emphasize that it’s key to assess the situation before acting.

“We help people think through what different options they might have in the moment, given who they are and what the situation is,” said Tracy.

Many people may not feel safe calling 911 or fear it could escalate the situation, so calling the authorities is not always the right option. For instance, if nobody on the train car believed they could safely call 911 or saw other safe ways to intervene, Tracy said, that could explain why no one acted.

Upper Darby Police Superintendent Timothy Bernhardt said Saturday that it was unknown whether other passengers ignored the attack or were too afraid to act. Bernhardt said police were reviewing security footage of the attack, in part to examine the passengers.

“There were other people on the train who witnessed this horrific act, and it may have been stopped sooner if a rider called 911,” SEPTA spokesperson Andrew Busch said in a statement Friday. “SEPTA urges anyone who observes a crime being committed or any dangerous situation occurring to report it.”

He recommended that the public call 911 in emergencies. For non-emergencies, the SEPTA Transit Watch app allows the public to discreetly make reports to transit police, he said.

» READ MORE: After surviving sexual violence, I want more people to speak up | Opinion

The more people who step in when someone is being harmed, the safer the community becomes and the more likely others are to step in the next time they see something happening. And when bystanders remain passive, that cycle perpetuates over time, too, Tracy said, “and the culture of the community as a whole devolves.” People who do intervene often act out of a sense of empathy, responsibility for others, or caring for others, including those who differ from themselves.

“In the moment, in a really fraught situation, a scary situation,” said Tracy, “it does take moral courage.”

What you can do

Many universities offer bystander training to students to combat sexual violence, bullying, and other harassment. Green Dot and Hollaback!, two organizations that have developed programs to help people address harmful situations, identify multiple tactics to disrupt harm. They include creating a distraction to interrupt the situation, delegating action to get help, and directly addressing the situation.

How to intervene depends on who you are, what the situation is, and the level of danger. Some ways to be an active bystander are:

  1. Directly address the situation by telling the harasser to stop.

  2. Call for help. That could mean calling 911, as police said passengers on the train car should have done, or calling other people with authority in the situation. It could also mean recruiting other allies, Tracy said, such as others witnessing the event. You can also delegate actions to people present.

  3. Distract from the situation, the Green Dot and Hollaback! programs recommend. Do anything you can to interrupt — striking up conversation, pretending to need directions, getting in the way physically, or causing a commotion by dropping something or being loud.

  4. If you’re in a group of bystanders, make it known that you think something is wrong. “You can say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’” Tracy said. “”When you say something, [others are] more likely to perk up and say, ‘Oh, there’s something going on.’” That can remove the group’s inhibition to act.

  5. Recording the incident on your phone to document it can help if it’s unsafe to intervene in any other way or you have already tried to help, according to Hollaback!’s online bystander resources. Never post a video online without permission from the subject of the harm, Hollaback! advises.

  6. If you can’t do anything in the moment, experts suggest you may be able to talk to the person who was targeted afterward and try to support them. Ask, “Is there anything I can do?” Tracy said. You could ask if you can accompany them to their destination, sit with them, or help them make a report if needed, Hollaback! suggests.