Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Bystander Effect

Wiggin murder put 'bystander effect' to the test

By Brent Curtis Staff Writer

Article published Nov 30, 2008

As Castleton State College instructor Linda Wiggin was being beaten to death in her Poultney home earlier this month, at least one person heard her repeated cries for help, according to court documents.

Yet no one called police until days later.

Wiggin, 49, was allegedly beaten to death by her boyfriend, 41-year-old David Denny, who occasionally lived with her in the first floor of the home she owned at 186 College St. He has been charged with second-degree murder.

As an argument between Wiggin and Denny escalated on Nov. 10, one of the four college students that Wiggin rented rooms to on the second floor told police she heard most of the argument, including Wiggin's repeated calls of "help please" or "help police."

But police weren't called until days after Wiggin's death, prompting outrage from some residents who wondered why the student or her roommates hadn't notified police sooner.

The student's reaction, however, isn't uncommon, according to psychologists and sociologists. In fact, it is case in point of a disturbing social phenomenon: the bystander effect.

Despite repeated attempts to contact the tenants at the Wiggin home, none could be reached.

While most people believe they would know how to react in a situation where another person's well-being, or even their own life could be in danger, many bystanders do nothing because of doubts, fear of repercussions or even the simple belief that someone else will call for help.

Evan Harrington, a social and forensic psychologist who teaches at the Chicago School of Professional Psychology, said he has witnessed such phenomena firsthand when he stumbled upon a mugging in New York Central Park several years ago.

As a man was being mugged and beaten in broad daylight, Harrington said he noticed other passers-by witnessed the event but failed to respond. In the end, Harrington said he chose to take action by calling police.

Looking back on that incident, Harrington said he witnessed more than a mugging; he had seen multiple social and psychological phenomena take place.

Onlookers to a criminal act who are part of a crowd often reinforce such beliefs by looking to their fellow bystanders to see how they react in what is known in sociological terms as "pluralistic ignorance" and "diffusion of responsibility."

Pluralistic ignorance holds that individuals will act against their own beliefs if they run contrary to the actions of a group. Therefore, an individual in a group of people who are doing nothing during an emergency situation are likely to imitate the actions of those around based on the belief that the opinion of the group to do nothing is the correct action, he said.

The other phenomenon of diffusion of responsibility holds that if a group of people witness a crime or emergency, the individuals within the group are less likely to render help out of the belief that someone else in the group will or already has done so, he said.

While there are sometimes those in a crowd concerned with their own safety, and thus unwilling to get involved, Harrington said he believes it's more likely that most onlookers don't believe what they are seeing. In the case of the mugging that he witnessed, for example, he said it would be easier for most people to believe the two men were "horsing around" rather than believe a crime was taking place.

Harrington said the same sort of disbelief and doubt takes place every day at a much more subtle level when people witness behavior that troubles them but leaves them unconvinced a crime is taking place.

"It's like when you see people in the supermarket where a parent is hitting a child," he said. "It could be child abuse, but corporal punishment is generally accepted in this country, and an onlooker might tend to believe that what they are seeing is a private matter and none of their business."

That sort of thinking factors into incidents of domestic abuse, as well, he said, in cases where onlookers or those in earshot might believe the curses and shouting they hear are a private affair.

An onlooker's propensity to lend help becomes even more unlikely when there is a belief that there could be consequences to their actions, said Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University.

"In a small town where there are few murders taking place, that's not on the mind of bystanders who are likely to be concerned with more mundane consequences such as embarrassment or being shunned or angering your landlord or her boyfriend," Levin said, referring to the circumstances in the Wiggin case.

Also, because arguments between Wiggin and Denny weren't uncommon, Levin said it's possible that the students believed the fighting downstairs was no different than arguments in the past.

"I don't want to excuse apathetic behavior, and bystanders should always err on the side of caution, but the possibility of retaliation or even eviction may have played a role here," Levin said.

Even when domestic incidents involve neighbors who aren't the landlord, many people opt not to get involved out of fear of angering a neighbor they will have to live with after the police intervene, Levin said.

That sort of thinking is something State Police Detective Tim Oliver said he can relate to.

Oliver, who oversees the detective division at the State Police barracks in Rutland, said he has heard from neighbors in his own cases, as well as anecdotally from other officers, the explanation that people overhearing a domestic incident don't want to get involved for fear of being "jerk neighbors."

But while he said he understands neighbors' fears of angering a couple next door or wasting police officers' time, Oliver echoed Levin's words that it's better to take a chance than it is to let a potentially violent and deadly encounter play out.

"It's better to be safe than sorry and err on the side of caution," Oliver said.

From a victim's point of view, Harrington said the best way to get help in an emergency is to be specific when calling for help.

"Rather than diffuse the responsibility, you should put it on one witness, even if it amounts to pointing at someone in particular and saying 'Hey, you, call the police,' " he said. "It makes the call for help personal, and it frees the witness from doubts that they might be doing the wrong thing because even if it does turn out to be a false alarm the witness can say 'Look, they told me to get help.'"

From a legislative standpoint, Vermont, like many other states, passed a Good Samaritan law 40 years ago that shields those who render aid from any legal liability. Vermont's Samaritan law also threatens a $100 fine against anyone who watches a life-threatening effect unfold but does nothing.

At least, that's how the law works theoretically.

In practice, the law, titled "Emergency Medical Care," is rarely invoked as a protection, and has never been called on, so far as state crime statisticians are aware, to punish someone for inaction. Like most Samaritan laws, the law in Vermont was tailored to free witnesses of a medical emergency from any doubts about rendering assistance.

The extremely rare use of the law was troubling to lawmakers interviewed last week. But legislators serving in the House and Senate Judiciary Committee rejected the notion of stiffening the law and applying it to criminal cases, such as Wiggin's slaying.

Sen. John Campbell, D-Windsor, who is vice-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he believes witnesses to criminal events have a "moral obligation" to call police.

"In this case, my God, how much clearer can you get," he said, referring to the Wiggin case. "We have a moral responsibility as human beings to render assistance."

However, he said he doesn't believe moral responsibilities translate well into legal obligations.

Making participation on the part of onlookers a legal responsibility with potential criminal sanctions would be a "slippery slope," Campbell cautioned.

"As much as I find this distressing … from a prosecutorial standpoint, it's difficult to prove, number one, and number two, it would open a lot of people up to liability. It would be a Pandora's Box," he said. "The message of this at day's end is we all need to look in the mirror and say, 'Could we have done something to prevent someone else's death?"

Campbell's concerns about walking a legislative tightrope were echoed by Assistant Attorney General Michael McShane, who said tailoring a law that would coerce people to intervene in criminal acts would potentially compel bystanders to either put themselves in harm's way or open themselves to legal liability.

"It's tricky to see that and it could end badly," McShane said. "It's a tricky place to legislate in."

However, Rep. Margaret Flory, R-Pittsford, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said she believes bystanders already may be civilly liable for their actions or lack thereof based on one of the few Supreme Court decisions that has cited the state's Good Samaritan law.

In Sabia vs. The State of Vermont, Flory said the court talked about a civil duty to report during emergencies — a finding she said could include observations of any criminal activity.

"There's a big difference between a criminal and a private action," she said. "I don't think there's any way that someone could be held criminally negligent under the existing law, but who knows what kind of private suit could be brought?"

Like Campbell, Flory said she didn't believe a law that criminally punished witnesses who didn't act when crimes were taking place would be a good idea. In Flory's opinion, such a law would dilute the effectiveness of mandatory reporting laws applying to teachers, counselors and medical personnel who are compelled to report any criminal activity that they learn about.

"You can get to a point that there are so many mandatory reporters that the law is no longer effective," she said.

Contact Brent Curtis at brent.curtis@