The Washington Post reports today about a new app called Vigilante that proposes a technological solution to violent crime. It monitors police scanners and sends users notification of crimes currently being reported nearby. Apple has pulled it from the app store, but I think it's worth taking a look at.


First, bystander intervention can be a powerful deterrent to crime, and not coincidentally a refreshing draught of humanity and empathy in an often unsympathetic world. Take, for instance, this video that has recently been making the rounds on Facebook.  

A young African American man takes a guy to task on the bus after he sees the guy inappropriately touching a teenage girl, who is too scared to do or say anything. It's a little snapshot of the world we wished we lived in all the time, where complete strangers stand up for people they see being hurt. 

And the guy leaves the girl alone, and maybe next time he thinks twice before he starts groping someone, and the girl hugs the man who helped her, and everyone lives happily ever . . .

Nope. The young man who helped gets arrested by the police when they arrive on the scene. Eventually they let him go and apologize, so the outcome isn't, you know, completely tragic.

Which brings us back to Vigilante. In the video, it shows a young woman walking alone under an expressway at night, on the phone with 911, telling the dispatcher that she's being followed by "a man in a black hoodie."  A group of young African American men get the Bat Signal on their phones and interrupt an assault in progress and everyone lives happily ever after. 

Except that they probably don't. The police interviewed for the article in the Post were quick to point out that responding officers have no way of telling who the bystander is and who the attacker is if they walk into a situation like that. It's one thing to jump in to help someone if you are there when it's happening and take the risk that the police may mistake you for the criminal. It's a whole 'nother thing to grab your baseball bat or gun and head out to fight crime. 

Also, police get called into all kinds of highly dangerous and sometimes ambiguous situations. Domestic violence situations are notoriously deadly for anyone who intervenes. When the couple fighting is heterosexual, police typically assume that the man is the aggressor. It's not a perfect system, but it's far more likely than not to be the correct assumption. Same sex domestic violence? Much tougher to sort out. 

And what about the fact that people rarely intervene in an assault when they are RIGHT THERE watching it go down? I see people belly-aching on social media: What is wrong with people? Why didn't anyone DO something? 

I am quick to come to the defense of bystanders who don't act. For one thing, most people are not trained in dealing with violence. Intervening might just get another person hurt and not help the person who was being attacked originally. For another, bystander freeze is real. Adrenaline kicks in and unless you have some experience managing it, you are likely to get stuck wondering if you should do something and if so, what? In the meantime, most assaults are over in a matter of seconds. 

So if most people won't do anything when the crime is happening before their very eyes, who is likely to use Vigilante? I'm going to go out on a limb and say: people who are looking for an excuse to be violent anyway. Are their responses likely to help? Maybe. But far more likely they will get themselves hurt by the perpetrator and/or hurt and arrested by the police when they arrive. Also entirely possible is the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin scenario in which an innocent kid gets killed for looking "suspicious", which is too often code for "Black."

So what do you do if you want to help? My answer will not surprise you: find yourself a good self-defense class and learn some skills to use in defense of yourself AND others. Practice intervening in scenarios--set them up with friends and practice what you would say and do if you see someone being harassed or hurt. Pay attention to your surroundings when you are out, and if you have the chance to help someone out without getting hurt yourself, by all means do it.