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Bystander Intervention | Jeff McKissack, Defense By Design

Two’s Company, Three’s a Crowd

Have you ever heard this old proverb, though typically related to dating? Well, in many cases, it could be true for those who (with all the best of intentions) try to intervene in the midst of a confrontation or attack. But how do you know “when” you should intervene in such situations?

I remember almost 30 years ago when a former roommate and I had a 130lb Rottweiler. Our neighbor next door had a large Doberman. On occasion, the two would tie up, one trying to prove dominance over the other. We typically stood back until one had tired, allowing us to more safely separate them so as to remain unharmed ourselves. That was a valuable lesson, but not the only one.

I also remember a traveling evangelist once visiting a church I was attending, telling a story about how in his younger years living alone he used a laundry as he had no washer and dryer of his own. One day while waiting for his cycles to complete, he witnessed a man also in the laundry go out to his car where his young son was becoming impatient and started laying on the horn of the car. The minister said he saw the man go out, pull his son out of the car and begin to beat him, “beat him”, profusely. The minister said those in the laundry stood by (including him) and watched, too afraid to intervene. I walked out from the service as I had heard enough. That, too, was a valuable lesson, but what was the difference?

When two people of similar size, stature, and maybe even skill level engage with each other, we have a word for that engagement. We call it a “fight”. But when two people engage and one is clearly outsized or “out-gunned” by the other, we have a different word for that engagement. We call it an “attack”.

Think of two MMA fighters for whatever reason brawling in a bar or on a street. Who is going to put themselves in that mix to intervene? Why would we typically watch this (maybe even record it for YouTube on our smart phone) versus trying to break it up? Because in that scenario we perceive two equally-matched tacticians engaged in a fight. Even though stupid, it still somehow seems “fair”. Would we think the same of a man beating his wife or girlfriend in public? Would we think the same about seeing an elderly person knocked to the concrete by a mugger? Would we think the same about a young introverted boy or girl being harassed on the way home from school by a bully? No, because we do not see two equally-matched combatants and the fight is most definitely not “fair”. This is where most feel the need to intervene.

Third-party (bystander) interventions are a tricky thing, though. And if we do decide to engage, there will almost certainly be legal ramifications as well, either criminal and/or civil, as we are forced to then justify our actions and intervention in a courtroom setting. No, this is clearly not an easy decision, yet it will often be made in a matter of seconds.

I am assuming that all verbal negotiations and interventions have failed at this point of our scenario. For the bystander seeking to intervene in a physical attack, there are a number of questions they must both ask and answer in milliseconds, some of which are:

  1. Have the police been called? You will want the record of that 911 call you placed before you acted. It will help tell the court you tried to involve law-enforcement, but their delayed response time warranted more immediate action.

  2. Is the situation escalating beyond the ability of one of the parties to truly defend him or herself? Point being, any further delay in a response could have resulted in life-threatening injuries, if not death.

  3. Is there a way you can act as a physical “buffer” or barrier between the two without engaging the obvious attacker, putting yourself then in harm’s way?

  4. Is this truly a situation calling for “your” intervention or are there others around you can recruit to assist (being safer in numbers) in breaking this up?

  5. Do you have the physical (or otherwise) ability to control or deescalate this situation until the police arrive? Will a weapon be needed, produced, or improvised to gain control?

  6. Are you willing to suffer the legal consequences, criminal and/or civil, for your actions if executed before the police arrive?

Our society today seems obsessed with firearms. Many people today, whether upstanding citizens or criminals, either own them or have easy access to them. It is also remembering another old saying, “What you don’t know can hurt you.” Not knowing the aggressor in the intervention scenario can be a highly dangerous gamble these days. If you do not know them, then obviously you do not know what they are capable of doing, especially if an unknown person (you) is perceived as sticking your nose into their business. This not only speaks to their immediate response to your actions, but potential later retaliation as well.

At the end of the day there is no “pat” response, no “if this, then this” formula to apply. It will be your will and your conscience combined (hopefully) with your training and abilities that will have to make that choice. That choice can and may have ripple effects with spouses, children, or others as well.

There is without a doubt a time and place to respond, to defend others who cannot (for whatever reason) defend themselves. But do not enter such situations lightly. Do not let ego silence good judgment, or as we used to say back home, “Don’t let your ‘mouth’ write checks that your ‘body’ can’t cash.” Weigh such situations (should they even arise) with sober discernment. There is a difference between two dogs or even two trained fighters engaged in conflict versus someone obviously being victimized by an attacker. In your mind and heart, know that difference, as the former is far more common on our streets (and on social media) than the latter. Should the need arise; a concerned citizen acting on behalf of a fellow citizen will be a welcomed intervention. But in the case of most street brawls we see playing out in today’s news, we go back to the original title of this article, “Two’s company, but three’s a crowd.”

Jeff McKissack is a noted authority on profiling and threat assessment. For some 27 years, Jeff has personally addressed over 350,000 in live audiences as well as countless others through radio and television. He is a contributing writer to several state and national publications and author of the book, Power Proverbs for Personal Defense. Jeff regularly conducts seminars in the public and private sector as well as continuing education events within the medical, legal, financial, real estate, human resource, risk management and insurance professions. He is president of Defense By Design in Dallas, Texas, as well as founder of, a licensing program equipping instructors as local resources within their communities to reduce instances of violence and exploitation.

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