The weapons: steel bars, bats, Tasers, fists, feet and fire. The perpetrators: not hardened criminals but teenage boys. The crime: "bum bashing." It's a sadistic pastime for a rising number of teens: brutally attacking homeless people in public places. Sometimes the injuries land victims in the hospital. Sometimes they are fatal.
More than 140 homeless people were violently attacked in the United States in 2006, resulting in 20 deaths, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. That was a 65 percent increase from the previous year, when 86 homeless people were violently assaulted, including 13 homicides. Click HERE to read and view ABC's affiliate coverage about these vicious crimes.
In most cases no one is around when it happens, but what if someone were? What if you were to witness such an attack. What would you do?
ABC News conducted one of the most physically threatening of the "What Would You Do?" experiments to find out how people would react to this very real situation. We rigged a block in a suburban New Jersey town with hidden cameras and hired actors to simulate a "bum bashing" attack, using stage combat techniques taught by a master fight choreographer. Click HERE to watch video of the training sessions. With local police at our side, we watched to see what would happen.
"Whoa! Something stinks around here. Smelly man! I thought they already picked the trash up," one of the teen aggressors said as he approached our "homeless man."
The teens' demeaning insults quickly escalated into what looked like physical harassment. They shoved the man, pushed him to the ground and tossed his belongings around in a cruel game of "keep away."
Within moments, heads heads of passersby were turning. Clearly rattled by the violence, some hesitated to get involved. Others mobilized instantly and confronted the actors.
One bystander, Ramin Missaghieh, stepped right into the middle of the commotion. With a nudge, he dispersed the teens while another man escorted the homeless man to safety.
"No one deserves to be treated like that," Missaghieh said. "I always step in. I don't assume that somebody else is going to take care of it."
Colgate University psychology professor Carrie Keating said people were quick to get involved because the homeless man clearly could not defend himself against the three aggressors.
"It's not at all an ambiguous situation," Keating said. "Help was definitely needed here. Plus ... help had to be fast, as 911 wasn't gonna do it. Not quick enough."
One after another, individuals became outraged by the actors' abuse and chose to put themselves at risk to defend the victim. One woman, Joan Bilyk, stood in the middle of the street while reprimanding the boys, oblivious to the honking horns of cars trying to pass.
Bilyk said she did not really think about her own safety at the time. "I was more mad than frightened. I was furious," she said.
But what if the threat were even greater? Would people be as quick to react if the troublesome teens entered with a potential weapon, like a baseball bat? Of course, the bat used in this experiment was actually rubber, but the concerned citizens of this small town didn't know that. Nor were they deterred by it.