A Psychology Professor Gives Evidence That Bad Samaritans Are a Thief's Best Friends

UPDATED 07/28/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 07/28/1980 at 01:00 AM EDT

The day was sunny, and hundreds of people strolled the Brooklyn neighborhood. Suddenly a man walked out of a doorway carrying an apparently unconscious woman. He went to a car at the curb, opened the trunk and stuffed her inside as if she were a laundry bag. He slammed the trunk and drove off.

The incident was unusual even by the sometimes bizarre standards of behavior in New York City. Yet among several witnesses who paused to watch, not one stepped forward to question the man. No one wrote down the car's license number. No one called the police.

An isolated case, an atypical reaction? Not at all, says Harold Takooshian, an assistant professor of psychology at Fordham University, and he has films to prove it. The "trunk abduction" scene was carefully staged by student volunteers and repeated 20 times over several weeks while a hidden movie camera photographed it. The lack of public response proved depressingly consistent.

For more than two years Takooshian has conducted a study of citizen apathy in New York and 19 other U.S. and Canadian cities. He already has ample evidence to suggest that urban Good Samaritans are in critically short supply.

In a series of experiments in New York City, Takooshian sent out his volunteers—some of them obviously too young to be car owners—to jimmy open 310 locked cars and to walk off with fur coats, cameras, TV sets and CB radios planted inside by the researchers. Every effort was made to make the little dramas appear suspicious. Yet of some 3,500 witnesses, only nine showed interest enough to inquire, "Is this your car?" Five of those who intervened were policemen. Another who responded with more than ordinary vigor was a visitor from Cleveland: At first he actually helped the researcher break into the car, then realized something was wrong. At that point, Takooshian says, "He took off after our man and was trying to kill him with his bare hands. We had to rush over to pull him off."

Takooshian used men and women of differing ages and races as the "thieves." They dressed in various styles and worked both rich and poor neighborhoods. "The rate of intervention was very low," the professor reports. "We found that the appearance of the suspect, the appearance of the car or the time of day and neighborhood did not matter."

Outside New York City, says research associate Herzel Bodinger, results tended to be better, but nothing to cheer about. Phoenix scored highest in the number of public-spirited citizens with a 25 percent "intervention rate." San Francisco, Fort Lauderdale, Los Angeles and Chicago all had 20 percent. At the opposite end, Boston, Baltimore, Buffalo, Toledo, Miami and Ottawa came up zero. "Cities where the police have a reputation for law and order," Takooshian says, "had high intervention rates. Citizens tend to get involved." But he cautions, "We don't know yet if there is a correlation."

A native New Yorker with a Ph.D. in social psychology, Takooshian, a 30-year-old bachelor, has had considerable personal experience with crime—as a victim. He has been mugged, his Manhattan apartment burglarized, and he has lost four motorcycles to thieves. He is particularly incensed that his 92-year-old grandmother has been robbed a dozen times in broad daylight in the South Bronx. No arrests resulted from any of the crimes.

On the chance that some citizens refuse to intervene out of fear for their own safety, the researchers introduced a new twist: A uniformed policeman, armed with gun, nightstick and handcuffs, was stationed 50 feet away. "Not a single witness said a word to him," reports Takooshian, "but five people warned the thief to look out for the cop." After one test researchers interviewed a sidewalk vendor who snarled, "I saw it, but I don't give a bleep. Take the whole block; it's not mine."

Takooshian acknowledges that there was heated argument among his students at Fordham this spring over a highly publicized case in which a Manhattan photographer, Paul Keating, was killed when he tried to stop two muggers from attacking a teenager. "People believe the streets belong to the criminal and the object is to stay alive," Takooshian despairs. "Some reacted as if Keating's death was his own fault. It burns me up when they say he shouldn't have intervened." Police often counsel against getting involved in a fight, but Takooshian says, "Nobody should just walk by if he sees a crime in progress." If direct intervention is dangerous, he suggests, gather with other bystanders at a safe distance and yell at the offender in an attempt to frighten him away. At the very least, phone the police.

"One sociologist has called Americans a nation of willing victims," Takooshian says. "If people became more involved, I'm sure street crimes would decrease." The reason, he adds, is embarrassingly basic: "Criminals don't want to be caught."

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