While some cities are experimenting with smart ways to tackle crime, a new study has found a more old-fashioned method is still proving effective in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and South Africa.

Citizens are stepping in to help victims and see off those who start fights in public, according to researchers, who studied hours of CCTV footage from inner-city areas in Lancaster, Amsterdam and Cape Town.

In 91% of cases, at least one bystander intervened to break up an aggressive argument or assault by either blocking or pulling the aggressor away, gesturing for them to calm down, or consoling the victim.

Image: Lancaster University

Psychologist and the study’s lead author, Dr Richard Philpot, said the team’s findings overturned the conventional wisdom that, in emergencies, bystanders do nothing.

“The fact that bystanders are much more active than we think is a positive and reassuring story for potential victims of violence and the public as a whole. We need to develop crime prevention efforts which build on the willingness of bystanders to intervene.”

The 'bystander effect'

The study looked at 219 video recordings of arguments and assaults and found that, contrary to the “bystander effect” theory – which suggests people are less likely to step in to help if others are present – victims were actually more likely to be helped when there were more bystanders present.

Rates of intervention were the same across all three cities, even though Cape Town’s inner city was perceived to be less safe.

The researchers concluded: “We argue that it is time for psychology to change the narrative away from an absence of help and toward a new understanding of what makes intervention successful or unsuccessful.”

The global picture

The differences in the definitions of specific crimes, the level of reporting, and other social and economic factors make gauging global levels of violent crime difficult. For this reason, homicide rates are often considered among the most reliable indicators of long-term trends in violence.

The global homicide rate, measured as victims per 100,000 people, fell from 7.2 in 1992, to 6.1 in 2017, according to the UN’s latest Global Study on Homicide. This is in part due to population growth rising faster than the reporting of these crimes.

There are also big regional variations, with the rate in the Americas in 2017 (17.2) being the highest recorded in the region since reliable records began in 1990. Rates in Asia, Europe and Oceania were below the global average.

Finding solutions

While many will welcome the news that people are willing to step in to help victims, governments and authorities are under pressure to find concrete ways to tackle the problem and prevent crimes from happening.

Measures such as increased police powers, funding to support victims and strategies designed to steer young people away from crime have been announced by the UK government, for example.

The World Health Organization says addressing the issue on multiple levels in many sectors of society is required – including creating healthy family environments, solving problems in schools, workplaces and neighbourhoods, and tackling wealth inequality.

And some are suggesting looking at violent crime in a different way altogether. The charity Cure Violence is working to try to stop the spread of violence by using methods usually associated with disease control. Its model has been used in cities around the world, from New York and Chicago, to San Pedro Sula in Honduras and Cape Town.