On May 26th in Portland, Oregon, a man who was harassing two teenage girls turned his attention to three men who intervened, fatally injuring two of them and seriously injuring the third. These acts of discrimination and violence brought concerns around bystander intervention to the forefront of the minds of many, as we never know when a situation may unfold in front of us. Stand for State created this series of blog posts to address tips for risk assessment, strategies for intervening and avoiding doing harm, as well as the way bystanders are perceived by others may influence aspects of intervention.
The first post in this series will equip people with tools to identify a high risk situation. No one can guarantee safety in situations where intervention is necessary, but it is critical to know the signs that indicate a situation may turn physically violent because it will help us determine how to intervene when we want to.
Five Signs a Situation Could Turn Physically Violent
- The people are strangers to each other. If this is the case, it may indicate a more dangerous situation for all involved, including the bystander, than if the people involved will have to see each other again through work or their social circles. Also, if the person is hurting someone they don’t know, it’s possible the violence could turn towards a bystander. It’s also difficult to tell in this situation whether other signs of danger listed below are at play.
- Or they are intimately involved. Keep in mind that if a person is harming their partner in public, they are not thinking about the consequences of their actions, which makes that situation very dangerous. Police officers identify domestic violence calls as the most dangerous calls that they respond to. It’s also hard to eliminate the possibility that a weapon is present.
- There is a weapon present. The presence of weapons increases aggression. It’s also possible that the person carrying the weapon ventured out that day looking for an opportunity to use it. Consider the presence of a weapon an indication of a very dangerous situation and remove yourself from harm’s way. This does not mean that you still can’t help by getting to a safe distance. We’ll discuss that more in the next blog post.
- People involved are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Any impairment can reduce a person’s inhibitions and make them disregard potential consequences. They may also behave in ways that are unpredictable, making this situation one that is better dealt with from a distance.
- This includes the bystander. If you have been drinking, get someone else who is sober to help.
- Things are escalating quickly. If this is the case, it’s a good time to remove yourself from harm’s way and intervene in ways that do not involve direct engagement—unless you are trained in de-escalation techniques.
- There is no exit available. Tragically, there was no exit available while the train was moving during the Portland attack, which meant that people could not remove themselves from harm’s way.
The Influence of Perception in Assessing Risk
Keep in mind that people who are targeted for bias-related discrimination are targeted often for things including but not limited to: wearing a hijab, speaking a foreign language, being in a same-sex relationship, or the color of their skin. Potential bystanders who share the identity of the person being harmed are less safe to intervene than a person who does not, because the violence could easily be turned on them. Therefore, we can’t assume that other people who share that identity would be the first to intervene because it could be unsafe for them to do so. Considering this, it really is everyone’s responsibility to look out for each other because we all deserve to be safe.
At this point, you might be highly motivated to intervene when necessary but are concerned for your own safety, or you may not feel ready to yet because you don’t know how. If you’re feeling that way, you’re not alone. When polled in the 2015 Sexual Misconduct Climate Survey, 94% of Penn State students see themselves as someone who would stand up if someone was in harms, way, AND one of the top reasons people report choosing not to step in is that they don’t know what to do. The good news is that there are things we can do, and that even though extreme cases happen sometimes, most of the time, intervening will not involve a physically violent situation.
Our next post will share ways to intervene when you are concerned about someone’s safety, as well as proactive steps you can take to keep your friends and peers around you safer by showing you don’t tolerate discrimination.