An Iconic Murder Helped Create the 911 System

Monday, April 07, 2014

The murder of Kitty Genovese in Kew Gardens, Queens, quickly became a national story. (NY Daily News Archive/Getty)

A crime that took place 50 years ago in Queens was pivotal in transforming the nation's emergency response system.

Author Kevin Cook's new book, Kitty Genovese: The Murder, The Bystanders, The Crime that Changed America, explains how the murder of a 28-year-old woman in 1964 led to the creation of the 911 system.

Genovese had been dead for two weeks when The New York Times published a shocking account of her killing with the headline: "37 WHO SAW MURDER DIDN’T CALL THE POLICE”.

"On one hand, the crime stirred something primal: the ur-terror of being alone in the dark when a predator strikes," Cook wrote in his book. But the story captured a modern anxiety, too — the fear that "you might have a thousand neighbors only to die alone while they stood by their windows watching."

Psychology textbooks soon attached Genovese’s name to concepts like "pluralistic ignorance" and “the bystander effect” — terms used to describe how people can lose their moral compass in a crowd.

But as he walked with a reporter retracing the scene of the crime on the block where Genovese spent the last moments of her life, Cook pointed out the inconsistencies in the widely-accepted version of events. "Kitty Genovese was not killed by apathy, she was killed by a monster named Winston Moseley," he said.

Still, at the time, the prevailing sentiment was that Genovese had been failed by her community. In the immediate aftermath of the crime, local officials joined a national campaign to create a unified emergency response protocol.

"The 911 system grows more or less directly from the outcry from Kitty Genovese’s death," said Cook.

Those who knew Kitty Genovese remembered a charming, charismatic young woman. (photo courtesy Kew Gardens resident Joe Corrado)Author Kevin Cook stands outside the Mowbray Apartment building, across the street from where Kitty Genovese was attacked.

Kitty Genovese (photo courtesy Kew Gardens resident Joe Corrado) and author Kevin Cook in Kew Gardens (photo by Mythili Rao/WNYC)

Carol and Murray Berger have lived in their home in Kew Gardens, Queens since 1957.

Carol and Murray Berger have lived in their home in Kew Gardens, Queens since 1957. (photo by Mythili Rao/WNYC)


Gisele Regatao


More in:

Comments [6]

Sandy from Howard beach

The thing that no one talks about was that kitty Genovese might have been gay and she lived with another woman at the time of her murder. I wonder if the homophobic culture of the 60s had anything to do with the fact that people were so willing to stand by and not act. Can any of the researchers shed any light on that possibility?

Apr. 08 2014 09:52 PM
ron from flushing

if i'm not mistaken i remember reading that kits brother was vietnam vet,that lost both legs.bill i believe was his name,living on long island.

Apr. 08 2014 07:38 PM
Ian Alterman from Manhattan

The 911 system is not the only important thing that was an outgrowth of the Kitty Genovese murder: the ensuing decade saw the creation of more block and neighborhood associations than any other decade in history. Indeed, my block association, the West 83rd Street Association, was one of the first in NYC, and was formed directly in response to Kitty Genovese's murder. Although our slogan is "Because we live here, that's why!," it began as "It won't happen here!" We started by creating a dog-walkers group, to increase mutual safety, and started one of the first informal "block-watcher" programs in NYC. We became the first incorporated not-for-profit block association in 1966, and held the City's first block party (i.e., closing a street for activities) in 1968 - ironically just five days after the murder of RFK (the block party had been planned for weeks). Our association and its activities were the impetus for our neighbor block, West 84th Street, to create their own block association and hold their own block parties, and we may have been the impetus for others as well. Still active in block safety, beautification and community activism, we may very well be the longest-lasting continuously active block association in NYC. And we would likely not exist were it not for the tragic death of Kitty Genovese.

Apr. 07 2014 12:47 PM

Sorry about the mistake and thank you Daniel and Sharry for your comments. The story has been fixed.

Apr. 07 2014 12:33 PM
Daniel Polin from New York

It was a great piece, except for that grammatical faux pas. I fear that one day "with Cook and I" will be a perfectly acceptable alternative to "with Cook and me."

Who knew that the Kitty Genovese story was inaccurate and sensationalized (by the NY Times!) and that the 911 system a result?

Apr. 07 2014 10:34 AM
Sharry Lukach from New York City

Ms. Rao,
Your story this morning made me jump, but not from the content. (Good story, good coverage.) It's the little jab I get when I hear fractured grammar, and it's happening more and more often as I listen to otherwise thoughtful, intelligent journalism on my favorite radio station.
"They welcomed Cook and I into their home on a cold March morning."
Yes, I'm undoubtedly old enough to be your mother and I admit to being fussy about language, but, as your mother would probably do, I'd like to save you future embarrassment by gently telling you your slip is showing. (That's an archaic allusion to a time when women wore slips.)
S. Lukach

Apr. 07 2014 08:30 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.


Latest Newscast




WNYC is supported by the Charles H. Revson Foundation: Because a great city needs an informed and engaged public


Supported by