In Queens, N.Y., 21 years ago, Kitty Genovese was stabbed repeatedly near her home. She screamed for help, but none of the 38 people who heard her made a move to get involved.
In East Los Angeles last weekend, a young woman screamed as she was being pulled from her car. Several irate citizens chased her assailant and held him until police arrived.
Because they were willing to get involved, Richard Ramirez, who police say is the prime suspect in the Night Stalker case, is in jail. Jose Burgoin; his sons, Jaime and Jose, and Manuel De La Torre, the husband of the woman who was in the car, deserve the community’s thanks. As do Carmelo Robles, Frank Moreno and Faustino Pinon, who also gave chase. So does the woman in Northern California who told police that Ramirez resembled a composite drawing of the serial-killer suspect. Californians who provided helpful information by phone share in the contribution of citizens in the case.
Ramirez was captured because of good, solid police work, cooperation among authorities and the high technology that was involved in lifting the fingerprint and in the match made in minutes by the state’s brand-new $22-million fingerprint computer system. But the actions of ordinary citizens were important, and they provide reassurance to those who lived with the fear of crime during the months when someone was killing, again and again.
When people can reassure themselves that others, strangers or bystanders, are willing to help or at least to summon authorities, they feel less vulnerable, less alone, less isolated, less likely to die the way Kitty Genovese did.