How can I fight crime?
April 4, 2008 2:45 PM   Subscribe

If I witness a crime in the subway, what is the best way to intervene safely and productively?

Lately, I have been riding public mid-afternoon, when the highschool kids get out. There's a lot of loud horseplay, but twice in the past two days I have witnessed sexual assaults. In both cases it was a boy molesting a girl who very clearly did not welcome the attention, while the other highschoolers with them either said nothing or jokingly played along. Both times there were other (adult) commuters around, none of whom did anything (in fact, people tended to move away).

I had an overwhelming urge to intervene, but I didn't know what to do and was afraid for my own safety (I am a very small woman, <5 ft & <100lbs), in part because I could already see that noone else in the train was trying to help. I have been wracked with guilt about having done nothing, and I need to make sure that I am equipped to act next time this happens.

What is the most effective thing for me to do? How can I best ensure my own safety?

(FWIW, my cell phone gets no signal in the tunnels.)
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
i think, as long as there are other people around, a loud "what are you doing?" or similar is often effective, especially if it's the "jokey" sexual assault.

philly recently had a daytime beating that resulted in death in the tunnels right after school got out, and it sickens me that not one of the commuters said anything to the kids beating the guy.

your safety is paramount, so you shouldn't go running in, but a loud "dude, stop it" might do the trick. if not, you've called attention to the situation, and perhaps someone else will step in, or be able to alert the conductor/security/police.
posted by misanthropicsarah at 2:56 PM on April 4, 2008

If you see the same kids each day, can you alert the subway's security and see if they can keep an eye out?
posted by Rykey at 3:02 PM on April 4, 2008

As a decently big guy , I've stepped into situations like that before, but yeah, physically confronting teenagers might not be the best idea.

I'd say pipe up, hope that there are other decent adults on the car, and make sure your taser is charged.
posted by Oktober at 3:04 PM on April 4, 2008

If I were you, I would send many letters to the head of the transit police in your city explaining the events and your particular concern. Maybe bring the issue to the attention of local women's organizations who have the numbers to put pressure on the local elected officials. Your municipality undoubtedly wants the subway to be perceived as safe in order to keep the money from fares flowing in and as part of good governance generally.

As for the response at the time of the event, see if you can shame some nearby large people into intervening. I understand your concern for your own safety, and if you can get some people to assist you, I think you'll be fine. Make sure to take pictures with your cell phone camera and make sure the offender is aware of it so you gain some additional leverage.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 3:04 PM on April 4, 2008

Seconding misanthropicsarah on both points and adding the hope that once that social barrier has been broken, other passengers have the courage to intervene.
posted by Flipping_Hades_Terwilliger at 3:06 PM on April 4, 2008

How do you feel about the general safety in your city? I hate to say it, but in London, I would never intervene in a situation like this and if others on the subway car did, I would get off at the next station and change cars. But stories like this one from today are a dime a dozen. If transit staff/police are in shouting distance, call them - otherwise, I'd leave it alone if you don't feel safe. Am I one of the people compounding the problem? For sure, but damn, please be careful.
posted by meerkatty at 3:23 PM on April 4, 2008

Are there any other adult regulars on the route that you could ask beforehand "hey - I was really bothered by [example] on this bus last week, and I hate that I didn't do anything. If something like that happens again, I really hope I say something. If I do, do you think you would pipe up too? Give me some moral support?".
(I know it violates the rules of Leave-Me-Alone, but it's for a good cause).

Also, one person saying yes isn't enough, because I suspect that a large proportion of people who say yes, might without warning become a "no" the instant it matters. BUT - since you've already discussed this with them, and know them on a more personal level than anonymous stranger, you'd be in a better position to catch their eye and draw them into supporting you, regardless of them furiously wishing they'd ignored you last week and not got themselves pulled into this :)
posted by -harlequin- at 3:27 PM on April 4, 2008

Have you considered alerting the train crew? I have seen conductors intervene on New York subways before. They can also summon the police to meet the train at its next stop, if necessary. I don't know where you are based but here is what the MTA suggests in case of emergency:

"You can go to the train's first car (where the train operator is) or the middle car (where the conductor is usually located). Our train crews have radios that they can use to call for help."
posted by Mender at 3:33 PM on April 4, 2008

Sounds like part (okay, a lot) of the problem here is that these are highschool-age kids behaving inappropriately. A lot of people somehow feel they shouldn't intervene in cases like that, or are too intimidated to do so.

I'd say it makes the situation less predictable. Many women's experience of being sexually harassed on public transport, is that a loud WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING pretty effectively stops whoever is trying to harass you. They seem to rely on you being too ashamed/scared to speak up, and if this is turned on its head they get really freaked out. Harassers are allergic to scrutiny.

I'm not sure if a teenage boy would react in the same way, especially if there is a group goading each other on. I think it's important to do something. There are a bunch of good suggestions above, like talking to fellow passengers, and making sure that if you do intervene other passengers will support you. If there is some form of security on train (not hella common in my experience) you could alert them to the fact.

I like Inspector.Gadget's comment above, adding that if there is an issue because of highschoolers then it could be a more pervasive problem than you've expected; either way, the transit authority would probably like to know.
posted by eponymouse at 3:52 PM on April 4, 2008

I've heard that you should yell, "Call 911!" Then shout what is happening and identify the people by description. Then yell, "No one has called 911. Call 911." And repeat what is happening. If there is still no movement, you can look someone in the eye and say, "You! Call 911. Tell them...." Apparently, people are more likely to react to a situation if they perceive that they've been told to do something. However, I do not know how this affects your own safety. (I have also heard that using a cell phone camera to record things can help, but I'm not qualified to say whether that is safe.)

In some transit systems, there are alarm buttons with intercoms and cameras. You could use one to alert the transit police. Again, I'm not sure how this affects you.

Is there a payphone at the top of the stairs? Or would your cell phone work up there? You could try this from there, out of view, and at least send the police or security in.
posted by acoutu at 4:20 PM on April 4, 2008 [3 favorites]

I suspect that if you take the initiative and speak up, you will be backed up by other commuters. This is classic Bystander syndrome to a T. Nobody is speaking up because they are waiting for somebody more qualified to take charge - but that's always somebody else, so nobody speaks up. People have died because of this (most famously, Kitty Genovese). The solution to Bystander syndrome is to consciously take initiative.

Please do speak up if it happens again. What would you want fellow passengers to do if it were happening to you?

I totally understand and respect your concerns for your safety (I am almost exactly 5'' and 100 lbs, actually), and nth the suggestions to talk to the train crew and transit police as well as invest in some mace/pepper spray and learn how to use it (if it's legal in your area). Also, keep your cell phone out. That said, from your description these are asinine high school kids who barely have a clue what they're doing is wrong, not violent juvenile offenders, so I wouldn't worry too much. Confront them in public and you'll be fine.
posted by bettafish at 4:32 PM on April 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

I agree with bettafish.. Get some mace/pepper spray and confront them. What they're doing is wrong and if they get confronted about it in a firm way, they might stop. If you do see them again doing it, try and get the conductor/security/police or whoever involved since they are commiting a crime. You will be saving a person from a lifelong psychological issue if this continues.
posted by majikstreet at 5:10 PM on April 4, 2008

I would agree with those who say that you have to look out for your own safety as well. But I applaud you for deciding to do something next time. I've been in the same situation, and I am still feeling guilty for not doing anything.

One thing that might help is to think about how to mitigate against what's called the Bystander Effect. Basically, it states that people are "less likely to intervene in an emergency situation when other people are present and able to help than when he or she is alone." It also posits that once someone steps up and helps, the others in the crowd are more likely to assist - and in fact are very often willing to assist. It's what acoutu is talking about saying that a victim in such a situation should tell people to do something specific, rather than asking them to help in general. So perhaps you could identify one or two people in the car with you that you could single out to help you if you needed to. By having a specific pre-formulated plea to the targets in mind, you could train yourself to be prepared to act.

Personally, I would single out an older man and a capable looking woman close by as "targets". If you see something seriously untoward, say something directly to the offending party:

- "Hey! You in the jacket! Leave her alone! She is obviously not that into you! Quit groping her! I'll report you to security!

Then, if you feel like you need the support, appeal directly to the target persons to help you:
- [To target one:]You! Are you going to stand by and just watch!? Call security!
- [To target two:]You! Don't just sit there! She is being assaulted! Call the police!

If you see regulars on the train, you could do what others have said and talk to them. But even if you decide not to do so, make sure to make eye contact with them - make them notice you. That way, they will feel like they almost know you - I think that makes it more likely that they will react if something threatens you.
posted by gemmy at 5:15 PM on April 4, 2008

In the Toronto subway they have these alarm strips on the walls. On the strips it says to push in case of assault, illness, etc. I've never seen anyone actually push one, but I'd imagine that it would bring that car to the attention of transit officials/officers and maybe make a loud noise. (there is also a separate emergency brake so I don't think pushing the strip will stop the subway).

If your subway has one I'd think pushing it would be an appropriate response that wouldn't result in you becoming a target of the kids (so long as you weren't super obvious when you pushed it).
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:37 PM on April 4, 2008

I'd avoid pepper spray actually, since a lot of accidents can happen with that. However, I've been harassed in the subway before, not physically assaulted, but perhaps situations where it could have gone that way. It was very verbal with the guy getting in my face and saying disgusting things. Once a few girls noticed and were like "Hey, there you are, come over here and talk to us," as if I were their friends and they ran into me on the train. That was enough to get the guy to leave me alone. That way you don't have to address the aggressor directly.
posted by sweetkid at 5:42 PM on April 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

invest in some mace/pepper spray and learn how to use it
Get some mace/pepper spray and confront them.

posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:05 PM on April 4, 2008 [9 favorites]

This might seem weird, but if you know the school these kids attend, then call the school. I remember back in the late 1990's when i was at high school in Sydney, Australia, members of the public would call the school and send a description of kids who were causing trouble, the bus # they caught, time etc. Some even came into the school and pointed the trouble-makers out.

I understand that this may be in Nth America, where there are little/no uniforms, but if there is anything that can help you identify the school, i think it could help if you called there, at least to bring it to their attention.

Just an idea...
posted by chromatist at 6:05 PM on April 4, 2008

This is a really tough situation. I'm guessing you're in New York...either way, I am and the teenagers around here can be SCARY. The elementary school kids can be pretty scary too, actually.

A lot of these kids play rough with each other and it can be hard to know when they're crossing the line or just goofing. My advice, and something I have done in the past, is to make eye contact with another (assertive looking) passenger and maybe point or nod your head to the action. See if that person seems concerned as well. You could either mouth or say "we should do something." Hopefully this can get at least one other person on your side as you yell "Hey kids, knock it the fuck off before I pull the emergency brake on this train and call the fucking cops." If you're a smallish woman, put yourself into bitch mode. If they sense that you're scared, they'll laugh at you. Whatever you do, you've gotta do it with authority.
posted by infinityjinx at 6:18 PM on April 4, 2008

Sometimes, all you need to do is say something and everyone else "wakes up" and joins you. There was a study done (sorry, I can't remember the reference), where a sort of group-think occurrs where everyone wants to do something, but since no one else is doing anything, they feel they must be overreacting, so they don't do anything. Once a person breaks this trance, other people wake up.

Nthing the idea to pull the emergency brake if you have to, and contacting the transit police to let them know of the situation.
posted by bitteroldman at 8:08 PM on April 4, 2008

First off, thanks for being willing to stand up on behalf of the girl. While I hope there's not a next time, I would say, in my best adult voice, "Hey! Stop bothering her!" and follow up by asking the girl directly, "Do you want to come sit over here?" That way you shame the culprits, make the adults wake up, and perhaps get the girl to a different part of the car.

I would not recommend physically intervening, even just moving to the area. I think getting in their faces could escalate things. Better to sit tight where you are and verbally make a situation that everyone is trying to ignore very, very public.
posted by sfkiddo at 8:47 PM on April 4, 2008 [1 favorite]

Your cell phone doesn't work underground- but they don't necessarily know that. If you make a big show of calling 911 it might be enough to intimidate them into stopping. Sure, they might suspect that your phone isn't getting reception, but they can't know for sure, and do you think the kind of cowards who would assault a young lady on the train would be willing to take the chance?
posted by baphomet at 8:09 AM on April 5, 2008

Yes, they do know that your phone doesn't work underground. Bluffing them is ridiculous. They live here too! A lot of the advice you've gotten here is totally useless in NYC. Threatening to call 911, get the cops, NYC on the train, it's not going to work and everyone knows it, unless you can get to the conductor, which means you have to walk through cars, or get his attention at a busy stop...etc.

My suggestion--and it's worked for me before in similar situations--

Bust out your best pissed off, confident, controlled voice (channel your mother when you talked back to her, came home after curfew, embarrassed her in public...whatever works):

"HEY!" (repeat until the perpetrator looks at you)

"Tone it down/Cut it out/Quiet down. We're all sick of it."

If they respond, ignore what they say and repeat:

"We don't want to hear it. Cut it out. RIGHT. NOW."

Don't address the assault directly--just the fact that they're bothering YOU by being loud and obnoxious. That'll take the pressure/attention off the victim while still interrupting the assault. Acting like it's about noise keeps people from over thinking it (oh, is it just a game, are they really bothering her, etc.)

The fact that you're a small woman is actually to your advantage in this situation--you remind them of their mom/auntie/grams, and no one on the train wants to see you get threatened, hurt, etc. If you were a younger man, they might be more likely to get physical because you'd be more of a threat/on their level.

If it doesn't work or you feel threatened, get off the train and get on the next one. There's always a next one. If they follow you off, get back on. Avoid being alone.

Good luck--like I've said, I've done it before, and I'm no Rambo. It just takes a healthy dose of attitude and a good strategy.
posted by sondrialiac at 1:19 PM on April 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you're wondering why no one steps up, check out the Bystander effect.
posted by IndigoRain at 3:30 PM on April 5, 2008

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