Debate is swirling over the conduct of passengers who witnessed last week’s Philadelphia-area train rape, who police said failed to intervene and, instead, recorded videos of the incident on their cellphones.

Last Wednesday, police arrested 35-year-old Fiston Ngoy, after they said he raped a woman on a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority (SEPTA) commuter train.

Ngoy, who is homeless, faced several charges including felony rape and sexual assault. He drew further condemnation after insisting the attack was consensual, which the victim’s account and eyewitness reports dispute.

In press conferences announcing Ngoy’s arrest, authorities said that the other commuters on the train — “as many as 10 people,” according to SEPTA police chief Thomas J. Nestel III — failed to intervene in the attack, and that several of them recorded videos with their phones rather than reporting the incident.

In the ensuing media coverage, the perceived inaction of bystanders elicited shock and outrage. How, many wondered, could eyewitnesses to a brutal rape do nothing to intervene? And why, some asked, would they take videos of the incident instead of calling the police?

“What we want is everyone to be angry and disgusted and to be resolute about making the system safer,” Nestel said. He added that he’s concerned that no one stepped in.

“It’s disturbing,” said Timothy Bernhardt, the local police superintendent. “I’m shocked, I have no words for it. I just can’t imagine seeing what you were seeing through your own eyes and seeing what this woman was going through that no one would step in and help her.”

Police said that while homeless man Fiston Ngoy raped a woman on a Philadelphia commuter train, eyewitnesses did not intervene and recorded videos instead of calling 911.
Police said that while homeless man Fiston Ngoy raped a woman on a Philadelphia commuter train, eyewitnesses did not intervene and recorded videos instead of calling 911. Photo credit: Delaware County Jail

Train Rape Spurs Outrage

As a news cycle of indignation played out across the national media, the story became refracted through the social and political lenses of every outlet that reported it.

An opinion piece for CNN said the incident displayed “the violence in which men routinely engage,” while Fox News focused on Ngoy’s immigration status.

An article in Time blamed the inaction on the “deteriorated social norms” of the pandemic era, while a piece in the Independent argued that Americans have come to see “the viral video” as “the only way to achieve justice.”

The episode became something of a cultural Rorschach test. In the SEPTA train rape, each pundit saw reflected their worst fears about American society.

So fierce was the condemnation of these commuters that some have called for the passengers to be charged with a crime, which Delaware County District Attorney’s office has announced that it is not planning to do.

Prosecutors are even encouraging eyewitnesses to step forward and assist in the ongoing investigation. They noted in a statement that failing to intervene in a crime is not a punishable offense under Pennsylvania law.

Details Still Unclear

There is some dispute about how exactly the train rape witnesses reacted to the incident as it unfolded.

While a transit authority spokesman said last week that one passenger did place a 911 call during the attack, SEPTA’s own police chief told the Associated Press on Monday that Philadelphia 911 dispatchers did not receive any calls reporting the rape, and that the county dispatchers were still researching whether they had been notified.

Police have not released the video from the train’s security camera, which they said showed the passengers recording videos and standing idly by while Ngoy raped the victim.

But in absence of that surveillance footage, some have doubted the veracity of the police department’s claims.

“So far, the factual universe of this case has come from the police, who are not necessarily always reliable sources,” wrote CNN’s Jill Filipovic.

Others argue that recording the attack is not an inherent wrong, noting that witnesses of police brutality who film those incidents are not usually condemned for their failure to intervene.

Though law enforcement and pundits have criticized the witnesses for failing to stop the attack, few have said specifically what they expected the passengers to do.

It’s reasonable to assume that the witnesses feared they might also become victims of Fiston Ngoy if they tried to physically stop him — many good Samaritans have been killed while intervening in violent crimes.

It’s possible the witnesses failed to act out of a genuine fear for their own safety, and it’s possible they recorded the rape to ensure that the attacker was held accountable.

The ease with which witnesses can take photos and videos with iPhones has created a new kind of culture. People watch, record and post on social media. But do they intervene? This time, the answer was no.