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April 26, 2012

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Incident reporting – Silent Witness

Percy Smith recounts the tale of a terrible murder that took place nearly 50 years ago in New York, which, he argues, has relevance for today’s health and safety practitioner in that it clearly illustrates how bad things happen when good people do nothing.

Catherine Genovese was the 28-year-old daughter of Italian-American parents but to millions of people who read her story when it first appeared in New York City’s press, she would forever be remembered as “Kitty” Genovese.1

What happened to her on a spring night in 1964 – the impact it had on society and psychological research – remains the subject of consternation and debate even now, almost 50 years after the terrible event.

Kitty worked as a manager at a bar in Queens, to which she drove the five miles from her apartment nearly every night. She often worked late and so returned home in the early hours. At around 3am on 13 March 1964 Kitty arrived back in her home neighbourhood and parked in the Long Island Railroad parking lot, 20 feet from her apartment door. As she locked her car, she noticed a figure in the darkness walking quickly towards her.

The man told the court later: “As she got out of the car she saw me and ran. I ran after her and I had a knife in my hand.” She must have thought that since the entrance to her building was so close, she would reach safety within seconds. But the man was faster than she thought. He caught up with Kitty, who was just over five feet tall and weighed just 105 pounds, near a street light at the end of the parking lot.

“I could run much faster than she could, and I jumped on her back and stabbed her several times,” the man later told the Police. Kitty screamed: “Please help me! Please help me!” Some apartment lights went on in nearby buildings.
Irene Frost heard the screams plainly. “There was another shriek,” she later testified in court, “and she was lying down, crying out.” On the seventh floor of the same building, Robert Mozer slid open his window and observed the struggle below. “Hey, let that girl alone!” he yelled down into the street. The attacker heard Mozer and immediately walked away. There was quiet once again, the only sound was the sobbing of the victim, struggling to her feet. The lights in the apartments went out again.

Kitty, bleeding badly from several stab wounds, managed to reach the side of her building and held on to the concrete wall. She staggered over to a locked door, trying to remain conscious. Within five minutes, the assailant returned and stabbed her again. He then ran to a car at the edge of the railroad parking lot and seemed to drive away.

“I’m dying! I’m dying!” Kitty cried. Several people in her building heard her screams. Lights went on once again and some windows opened. Tenants tried to see what was happening from the safety of their apartments.

Marjorie and Samuel Koshkin witnessed the attack from their window, six floors up. “I saw a man hurry to a car under my window,” Samuel said later. “He left and came back five minutes later and was looking around the area.” Mr Koshkin wanted to call the Police, but Mrs Koshkin thought otherwise. “I didn’t let him,” she later told the press. “I told him there must have been 30 calls already.”

Miss Andre Picq, a French girl, who lived on the second floor, heard the commotion from her window. “I heard a scream for help, three times,” she later told the court. “I saw a girl lying down on the pavement with a man bending down over her, beating her.”

When cops finished polling the immediate neighbourhood, they discovered there were at least 38 people who had heard, or observed, some part of the fatal assault on Kitty Genovese. But the fact remained that dozens of people stood by and watched a young woman being brutally assaulted, for an extended period of time, and did. . . nothing.
“If we had been called when he first attacked, the woman might not be dead now,” an assistant chief inspector told the press at the time. 

Excuses, excuses

“We thought it was a lovers’ quarrel!” said one tenant. “Frankly, we were afraid,” said another. One woman, who didn’t want her name used, said: “I didn’t want my husband to get involved.” Others had different explanations for their conduct: “We went to the window to see what was happening, but the light from our bedroom made it difficult to see the street.” There were lots of excuses but probably the most apathetic was the person who told reporters: “I was tired.”

Many of the witnesses claimed that when they saw the disturbance on the street, they imagined it was an argument between man and wife, or boyfriend and girlfriend. Nobody really thought they were witnessing a real killing. “We thought it was a lover’s quarrel,” one witness said later. Another neighbour repeated that assertion when he said: “I thought they were some kids having some fun!”

Examining these excuses individually sheds some light on the reasoning behind them:

  • “I thought it was a lovers’ quarrel” – misinterpretation of the situation (either deliberate or accidental);
  • Frankly, we were afraid” – understandable, but is this sufficient to do nothing? Even if they were afraid of direct intervention, picking up the phone would not have put them in harm’s way and still may have saved Kitty’s life;
  • “I didn’t want my husband to get involved” – fear for others who may be drawn into a dangerous situation;
  • “We went to see what was happening but the light from our bedroom made it difficult to see the street” – a puny lie, to account for cowardice;
  • “I thought some kids were having fun” – again, either a deliberate or accidental misinterpretation of the situation; and
  • “I was tired”– a totally inexcusable excuse!

Explanations for this behaviour

One dynamic brought forth was the ‘Bystander Effect’. This theory posits that as the “number of bystanders increases, the likelihood of any one bystander helping another decreases”. As a result, additional time will pass before anyone seeks outside help for a person in distress.

Another hypothesis is something called the ‘Diffusion of Responsibility’. This is simply a decrease in the level of personal responsibility one feels when in the presence of many other people. The greater the number of bystanders, the less responsibility the individual feels. In cases where there are many people present during an emergency, it becomes much more likely that any one individual will simply do nothing.

In essence, the 38 witnesses felt no responsibility to act because there were so many witnesses. Each one felt that another witness would do something. Social psychology research supports the idea that Kitty Genovese would have had a better chance of survival if she had been attacked in the presence of just one witness.

The killer heard some of the tenants of the building yell down at him, but he said he was unconcerned. “I had a feeling this man would close his window, and go back to sleep,” he said to cops, “and sure enough, he did.” (Winston Moseley, 29, was arrested six days after the murder, while committing a burglary, and quickly confessed to the Genovese killing, and two others. He was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment.)

Why did nobody call the Police?

Late-night shouting and yelling by drunks after ‘closing time’ (3am) was not unusual in the area where Kitty lived, and the Police had been called many times before to attend such events. The Police viewed these as ‘wild goose chases’ and a waste of resource.

Communicating with the Police at the time was not straightforward, either. Speaking to the press after Kitty’s murder, Lt. Bernard Jacobs of the NYPD, who led the investigation, could not understand the reactions of the 38 witnesses. He asked: “Where they are, in their homes, near phones – why should they be afraid to call the Police?” It was a good question, with disturbing answers.

The fact is that the public had a deep resentment against what they perceived to be an indifferent, rude and abusive department. “Have you ever reported anything to the Police?” one letter to the editor of a local newspaper asked. “If you did, you would know that you are subjected to insults and abuse from annoyed, undutiful officers. . .”

Another frequent complaint was the difficulty of calling the local Police precinct. In 1964, there was no universal ‘911’’ system (the equivalent to 999 in the UK). A caller had to dial the number of their precinct, and sometimes the call was diverted elsewhere (the Genovese murder became the pivotal factor in changing the phone-reporting procedure for the New York City Police Department).

Lessons to be learnt

Fast-forward 40 years, to a fatality at a (non-UK) coal-fired power station in 2006. The work was being carried out during a planned shutdown of the station, and the unit being worked on had been offline for two days. The work involved the removal of fly ash from hoppers, using vacuum pipes.

For some unknown reason, an operative decided to enter the hopper via the access hatch and go down the fixed vertical ladder into the hopper interior. At some point he lost his footing and fell into the remaining fly ash up to his waist. The ash was still at a temperature of around 80ºC and, although the man was able to tie a rope around himself, it was not possible to pull him out owing to the weight of the ash around his body (fly ash is a very fine particulate that takes on many of the characteristics of a fluid).

He was recovered after around an hour, with the assistance of the emergency services, but unfortunately, by this time, his condition had deteriorated to such an extent that the man died.

There are some important points to note: the man was a sub-contractor but had around two years’ experience in this activity. The work procedure specifically forbade entry into the hopper until it is declared safe when empty. It appears that he entered without permission and without fall-arrest equipment (it is unclear whether respiratory protective equipment was worn).

A number of people allowed this person to descend into the hopper, even though they knew it was unsafe and that such action was specifically forbidden. They said nothing, and did nothing, to prevent him from entering the hopper. Afterwards, they all required counselling because of their own inaction, and some required substantial time off work. They will all live with guilt and regret for the rest of their lives.

This is a case of the aforementioned ‘Bystander Effect’ and the ‘Diffusion of Responsibility’ – or, as it is now also known, the ‘Kitty Genovese syndrome’. These people were prepared to risk their lives to help the victim after he became stuck, but could not bring themselves to look weak, or foolish, or be ridiculed, by preventing him from undertaking the unsafe act in the first place.

Although this may be an extreme case, the lesson is clear: bad things happen when good people do nothing.
The typical excuses that these people may have offered up include:

  • “Mr X (the man who descended into the hopper) said he had done this before”;
  • “Mr X said he knew it was dangerous but he also knew what he was doing;”
  • “Mr X said he knew what was wrong and how to fix it quickly;”
  • “I don’t know enough to be qualified to stop him;”
  • “I’m new here and did not understand what was going on;” and
  • “If I had known he was going to be killed, of course I would have stopped him.”

It is virtually guaranteed that, in a situation like this, the bystanders will eventually blame the injured person if things go horribly wrong, especially if they are dead – for two reasons: it helps assuage their own guilt, and the dead can’t defend themselves.

Extreme circumstances can make any of us act abnormally and massively out of character. The stress of having – essentially – allowed something terrible to happen by failing to stop it places huge psychological pressure on an individual to justify their inaction and off-load the blame for the event however they can, often by blaming the individual who suffers the consequences of the unsafe act.

Managing to do a dangerous thing lots of times without mishap does not lessen the danger. It just means that, in the past, you got away with it. The more times you do something dangerous the higher the probability of it going wrong. The ‘danger’ to an experienced person, or an inexperienced one, remains the same.

The rule-breakers, by offering classic excuses like “I am highly experienced and therefore know what I am doing” offer false reassurance to bystanders, who think: “He knows what he is doing, he knows more than me, he has been here longer than me, he is senior to me.” They believe they have been relieved of responsibility and therefore, despite any unease, they will allow the person to undertake the unsafe act.

A graphic example of this removal of responsibility was provided in 1961 (three years before the Genovese case) by the Milgram experiments,2 and many similar ones since, in which individuals were encouraged to give “lethal electric shocks” to learners in another room.

Constant reassurance and acceptance of responsibility by the person conducting the experiment, who was in the room with the people “administering” the shocks, was often sufficient to allow them to continue to deliver “lethal” doses, despite their (in some cases extreme) misgivings.

In real-life situations, after an event, the bystanders will fall back on such excuses as;

  • “There were lots of people there, I thought one of them would stop him if they thought it wasn’t safe;”
  • “I’m not qualified to know if it was dangerous or not;”
  • “They do it all the time – it’s the only way to get the job done;”
  • “I’ve reported things before and nothing happened, nobody cares;”
  • “We needed to get on, and we weren’t going to let ridiculous health and safety rules stop us;”
  • “The person doing it said it would be OK and he looked like he knew what he was doing;”
  • “I didn’t want to show my ignorance and be ridiculed as a wimp;”
  • “I was too tired/couldn’t be bothered/it was lunchtime/tea-break/knock-off.”

Stopping the excuses

Organisations must take every opportunity to explain to workers the importance of speaking out on safety issues, and be very clear about how any issues raised will be dealt with – both on the spot, and in the longer term. This emphasis that anyone can stop a job for safety reasons must start at a worker’s induction and continue throughout their time with the company, and regardless of their level of responsibility/seniority, or their employment status – permanent staff, contractors or agency workers, transient specialists, cleaners, administrators, etc. must all be made aware that they must call a halt to a task if they feel safety is being compromised.

The organisation’s stance on this should soak into the everyday, routine fabric of working life. It can be reinforced at team meetings and safety briefings and via the likes of poster campaigns, competitions and toolbox talks. Workers should be offered examples of how things can go badly wrong if any one individual is not prepared to step up and stop it, and made to understand that they cannot rely on anybody else – they must do it themselves.

The two most important points to be made are, firstly, that safety takes precedence over production. The days of the people who could “get things done, but don’t ask how” are well and truly over. A job that requires a full suite of safety documentation at three in the afternoon requires the same attention to detail, and safety documentation, at three in the morning.

Secondly, there will never, ever, under any circumstances, be redress for stopping a job for safety reasons, even if the concerns raised are subsequently discovered to be unfounded. It must be made clear that there will be no repercussions, nobody will hold it against them, they will not be penalised and will, in fact, be congratulated.

Just as we can transpose the bystanders in the Genovese case to front-line workers, so too can the Police in Kitty’s tragic case be compared to an organisation’s management. Of all the excuses offered by the murder witnesses, the ones relating to not phoning the Police are the most understandable, because they were actually valid. If it is believed that reporting things is ineffectual, and does not result in action, then reporting will drastically reduce because it is viewed as futile.

Some typical excuses that management might offer for inaction on safety issues include:

  • “If I spend money on that, I will not have enough budget to keep everything else commercially viable;”
  • “The plant was due on and we weren’t going to let health and safety stop that happening;”
  • “The site is due to close so what’s the point? It’s all falling apart anyway;”
  • “People are using health and safety as an excuse for not getting on with what they are paid to do;”
  • “If I have to pay for this repair, I will have to pay for every little thing that people find wrong;”
  • “Don’t they know that we are closing and have to make do?;”
  • “That piece of plant is always going wrong, we have to work round it.
  • Excuses are always a method of self-justification and vindication of what was done, or not done. But they are usually a hollow defence for the indefensible and will, quite rightly, be dismissed by any normal person from a moral standpoint (even though that person, if placed in a similar situation, may not uphold their superior morals in practice).

Managers have a duty to listen to what they are being told, and to act, when appropriate, to put things right. Plausible deniability is not just a phrase used by politicians and, just because management refuses to listen to concerns from the shop floor, it does not absolve them of their responsibility. If they are made aware of something they must act, even if this only means explaining in more detail the safety controls that are already in place, if they consider them satisfactory.

Their attitude, as much as anything else, will help determine whether things get reported or not, and whether they have a true overall picture of the safety of their plant or premises. Above all, they must do all they can to ensure they are not viewed by their workers as the Police was by the public in 1960s New York.


Kitty Genovese’s murder was a terrible thing, and the inaction of the 38 witnesses is difficult to understand. In safety terms, too, inaction when things are found to be a possible danger is inexcusable, as is allowing people to do unsafe things without trying to stop them. We must avoid becoming like those 38 people who did nothing, and who were so reviled for that inaction.

Safety is not about stopping us doing things, being awkward, being a jobsworth, or being risk-averse. It’s just about looking after yourself, your co-workers and other people, and getting the job done safely.

It’s also not about management keeping things going at all cost, refusing to put safety issues right because it costs money, ignoring what they are being told by the workforce and rewarding inappropriate behaviour, like breaking safety rules, to keep things running.

Really, it’s just about doing what’s right and, whatever your level in the workforce, it applies to us all. 

1    From: A cry in the night; The Kitty Genovese murder, by Marc Gado, TruTV crime library – crime/serial_killers/predators/kitty_genovese/2.html
2    For a brief explanation of the Milgram Experiment visit: wiki/ Milgram_experiment

Percy Smith is the head of customer services, corporate and external safety for RWE npower.

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11 years ago

I feel I have to give Geoff a bit of unasked for advice as this may stop you getting hurt or even arrested as so often happens when somone goes out to do the right thing with a group. First, redken is right! – listen to your wife and second – if you really do have to confront a group of youths – make certian that a) you have reliable witnesses watching you (to avoid being arrested) and b) the police are on the way before you go out. (so if there is a problem, help is already on its… Read more »

11 years ago

Excellent material to incorporate into BBS safety culture. I understand the ‘Bystander effect’ however, this will help me with my own crusade.

11 years ago

I had a PC ring me to complain of a Scaffolder seen at a height of 12m not being clipped on when required.

When I enquired if he had stopped him he said no that was my job?

I asked him, if he falls, is that my fault also, just in case I need clarification in the aftermath of an avoidable accident?

I suggested that in future he stop the activity immediately and then dog me about it thereafter.

Sometimes the bloody obvious is overseen by misconception of appropriate intervention.

11 years ago

What a remarkable story . Sometimes we are not there to prevent something happening but we can make a difference if we get involved. My wife has many times stopped me getting involved in unruly kids outside my house in fear of retribution. As I confront the kids my neighbours look from behind their curtains. The power of one can make all the difference If one person comes forward others will follow. Brilliant article and well written

11 years ago

Geoff, listen to your wife!

11 years ago

No worries Tom, glad its been useful.


11 years ago

Excellent article, and emphasises the importance of creating an effective H&S culture by listening to concerns and acting on them, no matter how trivial they may seem.

11 years ago

Hi Percy,

very nicely put together. I have used this already in a BBS context with my site.

Regards and Thanks