Smile, we've apparently lost our sense of civic duty.

Posted: September 25, 2013

THE CAMERAS aimed at the northbound Cecil B. Moore SEPTA platform captured two things perfectly last week: an intense struggle between a transit cop and a fare evader, and the insidious Philly Shrug that could have gotten a veteran cop seriously hurt, or killed.

In the video, Officer Samuel Washington is responding to a cashier's call about the lawbreaker. As he attempts to arrest him, the guy, who cops say has a record as long as an e-book, resists, and the two grapple until they end up on a bench, with the cop underneath it.

It wasn't hard to see how easily this could have gone from bad to worse when I watched the footage at SEPTA police headquarters yesterday. The officer kept a firm grasp on the guy, but the guy could've grabbed the officer's gun as they struggled.

Yet not one person in the crowd picked up their phone to call for help. Oh, I'm sorry . . . one young woman did cut the call she was on short to capture a video of the struggle on her phone. What a sweetheart, eh?

"She would have gotten great video of a cop being killed if it had gone another way," said SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel III.

If the chief sounds angry, understand that this has been happening a lot. In June, he said, another transit officer who got into a struggle with a suspect got exactly zero help from onlookers. Shortly after, the chief tweeted, "Officer not injured but disheartened and frustrated. In uniform protecting public who walked by when he needed help."

Last week, Nestel turned to Twitter again. "Even as thug and PO rolled on platform not one of 40 peeps called 911. One videoed it. #shame."

Shame, indeed. But in Philly's (slight) defense, we're not the only ones who turn our compassion off when we turn our phone cameras on. In May, a mentally disabled man in Arkansas was badly beaten while onlookers recorded the whole thing. That same month in California, a homeless man died on a busy street corner while onlookers did nothing but stand by idly or film the incident with their cellphones.

The only person who reported the incident was a Department of Public Works employee cleaning the area, who flagged down an officer and told him the man was vomiting blood. The employee was set to receive a commendation.

Kudos to the employee for at least doing something. But, seriously, we're giving out commendations for being human now. That's gross.

Chief Nestel is more gracious. He doesn't think people mean to be callous or heartless. In Philly, at least, he's guessing they think that all cameras are monitored at all times and that help is on the way as soon as something goes wrong.

"The public just needs to know that we need their help, too," he said.

Although I've named Philadelphia's particular brand of apathy the Philly Shrug, there's actually another name for this kind of inaction. Experts call it the bystander effect, and the most cited example is the 1964 rape and murder of Catherine "Kitty" Genovese in New York City while her neighbors did nothing for a good half-hour but listen to her cries.

When I expressed my disgust about the events described in Chief Nestel's tweet, someone responded by saying it was the media's fault. Lord, what isn't?

If the media didn't post dramatic videos, then people wouldn't take them, the tweeter said. Nice try, but not even the universally hated media can be held responsible for a person's compassion, or lack thereof.

Jerry Ratcliffe, chairman of Temple University's Department of Criminal Justice, said we should be seriously concerned with the voyeuristic nature of technology that could save someone's life but could also be used to record their injury or death: "Have we lost our sense of civic duty?"

The people on that platform last week certainly did. No thanks to the crowd of heartless onlookers, Officer Washington got out of the altercation with just an injured back before the suspect surrendered.

The next person in need should be so lucky.


Email: ubinas@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5943

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel

On Facebook: Helen.Ubinas

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