Jordan Michael Smith in The Christian Science Monitor:
Okay, that last name might not be as familiar as the others. But the details of the crime are almost certainly known to you. In New York City in 1964, the 29-year-old Genovese was stabbed to death in three separate attacks as 38 neighbors watched and declined to get involved. At least, that is commonly reported version of the story. But Kevin Cook explains in his new book Kitty Genovese why this simplified version of the story is not the true one. Cook, a freelance journalist, has accessed for his book the detective’s reports of their preliminary interviews with Genovese’s neighbors. He found that, rather than including 38 eyewitnesses, the police log contained 38 entries. Writes Cook: “It was a roundup of interviews with many of Kitty’s neighbors, not a definitive accounting of anything.” Far fewer eyewitnesses actually existed, and those that did were generally fearful of getting involved, rather than indifferent to the woman. The popular figure of 38 resulted from a clerical error provided to the police chief, who passed it along to the New York Times reporter who made the case famous. It was a consequential mistake. The murder shocked Americans, who were horrified and baffled that so many onlookers refrained from intervening to assist the woman. The idea of 38 people so self-obsessed and alienated from their neighbors reflected the anxieties of many citizens, who saw rising crime, feared the Civil Rights Movement, and felt alone in an urbanized America.
CBS’s Mike Wallace narrated a segment on “The Apathetic Americans.” The murder spurred officials to create the 911 emergency-phone system. States created Good Samaritan laws. Victim-compensation laws, witness-assistance programs, neighborhood watch groups – the list of public policy changes that resulted from reaction to the case is extraordinary. Equally more remarkable has been the lasting influence the murder – particularly the false figure reported – has had in academia. One professor tells Cook that the murder is “the most-cited incident in social psychology literature until the September 11 attacks.” Cook manages to maintain an impressive level of tension in a book about a half-century old case about which everyone thinks they know the outcome. He assumes, surely correctly, that while many readers may have heard of the case, they don’t recall the specifics aside from the number of eyewitnesses. So he treats Genovese’s murder like something of a mystery – we may know that she was killed, but not why.
And who was Kitty Genovese, anyway? She was, in fact, a lesbian, a fact that likely would have drastically affected the public’s response to the crime, had it been reported at the time.