Print Columns   |   Web Chats   |   Blog Archives   |  

166 Chances To Do The Right Thing

I've been over the 19 minutes of security cam video seven times now, and by my count, 166 people walked past a man who lay motionless on the sidewalk outside a busy District supermarket one afternoon last week.

Eleven of those passersby took at least one step out of their path for a closer look at the man, who was flat on his back, his head at the curb on a busy stretch of 14th Street NW in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. One pedestrian lingered for a few seconds. Another chatted briefly with two others as they stood over the man. One passerby even leaned down and appeared to check the man before walking back where he'd come from.

But not one of those 166 people bothered to call 911 or seek help in any other way. No one pulled out a cellphone. No one hurried inside to ask for assistance.

Eventually, a worker in the Pan Am International market called for an ambulance, which came promptly. As soon as the medical team arrived, 22 people gathered to watch as the man was placed on a stretcher. Jose Sanchez, 31, died three days later from brain injuries suffered when he fell to the pavement.

The story played on TV as a local version of the famous Kitty Genovese incident from 1964, when a New York City woman was stabbed and sexually assaulted on a sidewalk while neighbors watched from apartment windows. "Thirty-eight Who Saw Murder Didn't Call Police," the headline said back then. (Later studies contend there might have been as few as 12 witnesses.) The case became a chestnut in psychology textbooks, a gruesome illustration of the "bystander effect" -- people are less likely to intervene if others are present because each witness assumes someone else has already taken action.

Genovese shouted for help. Sanchez, sucker-punched in the midst of a street argument, hit the sidewalk before he could make a sound.

If you were one of those 166 people, you saw Sanchez and decided to do nothing. Or you didn't see it, because you've trained yourself to render certain ugly aspects of life invisible.

"A man lying on the ground . . . we see that here all the time," says Hector Gomez, executive director of the Tivoli North Business Association. "This unfortunately is a community that becomes almost inured to crime and violence and inner-city vagrancy. The perception here is, well, there's a drunk man lying on the ground."

The perception might have been correct. One witness to the argument told Channel 7 that the dispute was about a single beer. Other witnesses told police that an oral insult precipitated the punch. Two men, Maxmillo Argueta and Humberto Escobar, were arrested and charged with assault; charges were escalated to manslaughter after Sanchez died, says police Inspector Rodney Parks.

Should it matter whether Sanchez was homeless? Or that the area outside the store is a daily hangout for drunks, some of whom harass shoppers? "Those same guys are here all the time, asking for quarters," says Giovanni Lopez, who works at the market. "It feels dangerous."

Should it matter that some merchants on upper 14th Street are reluctant to call police because officers responding to calls about drunks have chastised shopkeepers for wasting their time?

Everyone I spoke to along the retail strip where Sanchez died said those 166 pedestrians had reasons for not seeking help.

"People were afraid to stop," Lopez says. "They don't want to get in trouble or have to be a witness."

"You just don't want to get involved," says Gomez, who grew up at 14th and Spring Road. "A lot of people who live here would think twice before calling: If I'm here illegally, do I have to give my name? Are the police then going to track me down? A lot of people here don't speak the language, and some may not know what the proper procedure is. We need a campaign about calling 911."

Parks says D.C. police "do not question immigration status." The department has a Spanish tip line (202-498-9829) and bilingual 911 operators.

Would people do the right thing if there were fewer drunks on the street? Would there be fewer drunks on 14th Street if the city extended its ban on sales of single bottles of beer to more neighborhoods? (Sanchez died across from an Alcoholicos Anonimos storefront, a few doors up from Cavalier Liquors.)

Call them reasons, call them excuses -- whatever their name, they are legitimate yet insufficient. Yes, some passersby were hurrying to get food for their families, and some have cause to fear the police or the drunks, and some are sick of seeing people who lack self-respect urinating and sleeping on the sidewalk.

But a person was flat out on the ground, dying. You are obliged to act. It might be inconvenient or frightening. But you do not let him die. Which is what 166 people did.

Join me at noon today for "Potomac Confidential" at

By Marc Fisher |  February 5, 2009; 8:26 AM ET
Previous: Good Riddance: Juicy Campus Dries Up | Next: Virginia House: Put Jesus In Police Prayers


Please email us to report offensive comments.

In my year+ in DC, I've called 911 for a man who was lying on the sidewalk, barely-conscious and bleeding from a fall. I stopped, found that he couldn't answer my questions, and got help. That happened near 21st and K NW, and as I waited for the ambulance, I saw dozens of people walk by.

I've also walked right by recumbent men who I judged to be sleeping off a drunk, on the grounds that they are unlikely to be in immediate danger. But I honestly couldn't say beyond a doubt that they weren't more seriously hurt. I'm reluctant to start shaking random people awake.

I haven't seen the video from Columbia Heights, but given the context, unless there were visible signs of injuries, I would probably have walked on by too.

So what, then? Am I obligated to help everyone lying on the sidewalk?

Posted by: mquad | February 5, 2009 9:25 AM

That, by the way, isn't a rhetorical question. I'm interested in opinions on what I'm ethically obligated to do.

Posted by: mquad | February 5, 2009 9:27 AM

The majority of people I see laying prone on the sidewalk are drunk. This guy was homeless and there was no visible sign of injury. Therefore, why would anyone assume that this guy was any different than the 10 other guys they saw that day, passed out drunk on the sidewalk? In a perfect world, someone would have stopped to help the guy, but in a perfect world, the guy probably wouldn't have been in that position in the first place. The world is not a perfect place. It can be a very ugly place. That, unfortunately, is one of the realities of life. None of us live in Mayberry.

Posted by: sonny2 | February 5, 2009 11:07 AM

Not an excuse, but I would say a LARGE part of this sad event is a direct result of WHERE it occurred. If he were to have been found prone in a neighborhood that almost never sees something like this I am almost positive that someone would have called. Case in point, cold winter night in Glover Park, my friend and I saw a man laying on the sidewalk, we couldn't tell if he was sleeping or out-cold so we called 311 where we were told that we were not the only ones to have called (I also saw at least one other group of people stop and call-and this was on a cold night with few people walking about). An ambulance arrived shortly so we left. I'm not saying that people in Glover Park are better than people in Columbia Heights-what I am saying is that this unconscious man was a rare sight in Glover Park so many more people took notice.

Posted by: bubble1 | February 5, 2009 11:09 AM

If there is no blood and passed-out drunks are common to the area, I'd probably barely notice the guy. I have called 911 when I saw some homeless guys fighting (2 ganging up on 1). I don't blame the 166 people who walked by. It has very little in common with the Kitty Genovese scenario. I have no problem dialing 911 when it appears someone is hurt or being hurt.

Posted by: atb2 | February 5, 2009 11:52 AM

"But a person was flat out on the ground, dying. You are obliged to act. It might be inconvenient or frightening. But you do not let him die. Which is what 166 people did."

Out of context, that paragraph sounds right. But the context here matters.

First, it wasn't evident that he was dying, or for that matter seriously injured unless syou witnessed the initial fight.

Second, inconvenience or fear may be a factor, but more likely, as Mr. Fisher has pointed out himself, is selective attention. We all judge what's going on around us through selective attention. Among the selection criteria is perceived familiarity with the situation.

Finally, those 166 people did not let him die. They did not commit deliberate acts of withholding aid. They didn't think he needed immediate assistance.

None of these are excuses, they are explanations. What is ineplicable is that three miles from the White House, people are so despondend and desperate that they get drunk in the middle of the day in the middle of the street in the middle of people who don't care about you.

Posted by: cpwdc | February 5, 2009 12:13 PM

Our society appears to becoming more impersonal. The quickened technology of network news and cable journalism gives us images of human peril in enormous porportions. We witness conflict and death constantly. It is local, national and global. Our sanity is too frequently rocked by human dispair and suffering. Fear often consumes and paralizes us in dealing with our fellow man. In D.C. we past by the homeless and those in deep need almost oblivious to their painful circumstances. We hear the endless reports of young people killing each other in the almost forgotten neighborhoods of our great city and do nothing. In the context of our indifference thinking only of oneself may bring, some of us, a scarce interlude of peace! This understanding makes it very difficult to past judgment on those who don't take the risk in helping others.

Posted by: tblagburn | February 5, 2009 12:21 PM

I disagree. It's very easy to sit behind a desk and judge, but the truth is one must keep the blinders on if one lives in a city, especially in tough areas. A friend once stopped to help out a stranger who appeared passed out in an alley and sure enough that "passed out" person mugged him and ran away. The police said it's an unusual but not unheard of tactic for criminals to try and attract people to dark places. The point: you really don't know someone's intentions, you just don't, and stopping to help could mean serious repercussions.

If it had been a child, that's one thing, but adults have to take care of themselves and that includes staying out of trouble and making choices about whether to get intoxicated or not. Race, gender, religion, these things don't matter - if you're an adult, look in the mirror, THAT reflection is the ONLY one who truly cares about one's self-preservation - the blessing and curse of being a free thinking independent adult. Adults get rights, adults get responsibilities and your problems are your problems and mine are mine. If someone wants to go above and beyond the call of duty, I'll certainly tell them "kudos" but I'll never blame an adult for not taking care of another adult that isn't family or friend.

Posted by: thrashkid | February 5, 2009 12:25 PM

cpwdc is correct. Mark, you grossly overstate your case. The only person that chose to let him die, if anyone, was the person that hit him and walked away.

Posted by: Jayne | February 5, 2009 12:30 PM

BTW, 19 minutes of tape on a security cam? Who was supposed to be watching that camera?

Posted by: Jayne | February 5, 2009 12:31 PM

It seems like a lot of people here are passing the blame and saying what was I supposed to do, your supposed to do what you would expect someone else to do for you or a freind or family member. It doesn't matter who was watching camera there were people walking pass this and they saw what happened they knew he wasn't drunk

Posted by: tabathaburley | February 5, 2009 12:36 PM

I believe that 166 people did let this man die because they were so caught up in their own itty bitty lives they didn't think his mattered. I am very saddened by this. To know that something like this could happen to you and people will stand and do nothing, I'm afraid for my children and family.

Posted by: tabathaburley | February 5, 2009 12:39 PM

We can see how many people thought this was a big deal or at least big enough to have a discussion about by the 5 people that wrote anything. Teach your children don't depend on the kindness of strangers, Fight for life because chances are no one will come to your rescue.

Posted by: tabathaburley | February 5, 2009 12:47 PM

I did a check. This occurred on Jan 27 and the weather that night was around the freezing point (27-30 degrees). That alone should have made someone call 911. A man left out cold in that type of weather could easily go into hypothermia shock and die before ever waking up, even if he did just need "to sleep it off". How hard it is to keep walking and call 911 from a block or so away? Judging by how fast the paramedics arrived when the shopowner finally called, they would have responded sooner had they been called sooner. Who knows if he would have survived if they had gotten called 10 or 15 minutes earlier.

Whether you think the man is drunk or not, the external weather conditions should have mandated a call. Far too many homeless die of hypothermia over the winter.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | February 5, 2009 1:36 PM

this is washington dc

1 a group of thugs beat this man in full view of many people. DC allows this to go on all the time.

2 DC allows drunks to lie around anywhere and everywhere.

3 The Washington Post including Marc Fisher is fully aware of 1 and 2 and says and does nothing about it because it would be politically incorrect to speak up.

4 Given the current situation in DC the 166 did the completely reasonable thing.

Posted by: jy151310 | February 5, 2009 11:28 PM

JY151310, DC POLICE allow drunks to do that. Do not suggest that DC residents allow drunks to do that. The last thing I want are street drunks in my neighborhood and I call the police on anyone who appears drunk in public, which can get pretty heavy in the summer.

I've watched that video and a group of those 166 people appear to be homeless- and actually some come and go, I think Fisher is actually miscounting the number of individuals in that video as people wander in and out of frame.

There are no pay phones in that area and it's unclear, given the status of the people in the video as homeless street drunks, what percentage of those people have cellphones (I mean they're homeless!) or are even DC residents vs transients.

There is a reason that people are dismissing Fisher's weirdness here and it's not "blame DC"

Posted by: bbcrock | February 6, 2009 10:48 AM

What happended to all the negative comments against the writer???

Posted by: rlj1 | February 10, 2009 9:36 AM

If you're still reading comments, Marc, perhaps you can investigate the allegations by residents that they had called 911 and it took firefighters 25 minutes to respond. Given the article in the Washingtonian about medical emergencies and the rotten, lousy responses to them here in the district, it would not be at all surprising...

See Dcist.

Posted by: Elkay1 | February 10, 2009 4:06 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company