Monday, April 18, 2016

Reversing the by-stander effect: For Kitty

Last week the New York Times ran an article called Remembering Kitty Genovese, a haunting story about the young woman murdered late one night in 1964 in front of her home as she returned from work. According to news reports plenty of people witnessed or heard Kitty’s murder, but they did nothing.

I blogged about this a few years ago in A cry from the dark. 

In CPTED this is known as the by-stander effect and it refutes natural surveillance as a form of guardianship to prevent crime.

New York bar scene in 1963 - screenshot from Remembering Kitty
Ironically, journalists eventually discovered one witness did in fact call police and another initially hollered at the murderer, but none of that mattered to Kitty nor to public sentiment. As the Times story said: A paradigm of danger and indifference in an anonymous city had taken hold. 


Studies in environmental psychology now confirm the by-stander effect. In CPTED today we know natural surveillance is but one small part of a much bigger prevention story.

Second Generation CPTED teaches us that eyes on the street are not enough if they are eyes that don’t care or belong to people too afraid to act. Creating a genuine sense of connection between neighbors is how guardianship through surveillance works best. Without that social cohesion there is no community for people to care about. Research has also demonstrated how social cohesion cuts crime or how its absence triggers it.

Parking lot where Kitty Genovese parked the night of her murder - screenshot from Remembering Kitty

Murderer Winston Moseley died in prison two weeks ago. Kitty’s brother Bill published a letter to the Moseley family that said: …my family’s better angels do now express our condolences to the Moseley family. What do we owe to all our fellow beings? … Let us join with the hope of shared egalitarian equanimity. 

Last October The Witness premiered at the New York Film Festival, a documentary following Bill Genovese’s efforts to examine Kitty’s life and speak to Moseley in prison prior to his death.

Bill Genovese is right; Egalitarian equanimity - probably through social cohesion - should become our rallying cry in the 21st Century neighborhood. That much, at least, we owe to Kitty.