Your Use Of This Site Is Subject To These Terms Of Use. Do Not Use This Site If You Do Not Agree To These Terms Of Use.


How to Intervene in a Bullying or Threatening Situation

Mark Cohen, J.D., LL.M., DART Board Member 01/05/2023

You may encounter a situation where you must decide whether to intervene to protect another person or persons. This article offers some thoughts on how to analyze such situations and intervene if you decide to do so.

Nothing is foolproof. Intervention carries risk. There are no guarantees. 

The Four A’s

I think of four stages to intervention – Awareness, Assessment, Approach, and Action. But each situation is different, and you may encounter a situation that requires you to make an instant assessment and take immediate action.

  1. Awareness
  2. If you want to help others, you must be alert to situations where others need help.  A good rule of thumb is to trust your gut. If you sense something is wrong, it probably is. DART refers to this feeling as your “harm alarm”. Some things that may indicate a bullying or threatening situation is present or may develop include:

  3. Assessment
  4. If you believe a dangerous situation exists or may develop, you must assess the situation without delay. The time available for assessment will depend on the circumstances. In some situations, you may have to make an instant assessment. Some factors to consider in making your assessment are:

    Once you assess the situation, if you don’t feel safe intervening, call 911. You should remain on the scene so you can provide a statement to law enforcement. If you are not ready to call 911 or don’t think you have time due to the urgency of the situation, go to the next step.

  5. Approach
  6. 1. Stop and Look. If you see a concerning situation, before you get closer, stop, and look at the people involved. Often once the aggressor sees you, they recognize that they are drawing attention, and calm down. 

    “What are you looking at?” Sometimes the aggressor will stare back at you and say, “What are you looking at?”  It’s a rhetorical question. The aggressor knows darn well what you are looking at and why you are. Say nothing, hold your ground, and continue to look directly at the situation. If you move closer the aggressor may consider it challenge. If you back away, the aggressor may consider at sign of weakness or fear. You may want to take out your cell phone and prepare to dial 911 and/or you may want to begin recording the incident on your cell phone.

    “This is none of your business.” Sometimes the aggressor will stare at you and say, “This is none of your business.” Again, the best response is to hold your ground and say nothing. Just stand still and continue to demonstrate your concern. If you must say something, you can say, “Sir, it is my business because I’m concerned for both of you.” You might also add something like, “Look, I already took a picture of you and sent it to my friend. Let’s just stop and call this done and move our separate ways.”

    2. Verbal De-escalation. If the situation has not yet become physical, you may be able prevent that by using verbal de-escalation techniques. The idea is to show concern and empathy to prevent the aggressor from becoming more agitated. Some examples:

    “It looks like you folks are having a bad day. Is there anything I can do to help?”

    “I can see you are upset, let’s all take a deep breath and relax before this gets out of hand.” 

    3. Command and Consequence. If verbal de-escalation does not work, you must give a command and consequence:

    “Sir, if you don’t calm down, I will call the police.”

    “Sir, leave him alone or I will call security.”

    Have your phone out be ready to dial when you say this.  Be far enough away that the aggressor cannot reach you to stop you.

    4. Positioning. As all this is going on, if you believe you may have to intervene physically and you intend to do so, you should gradually get closer to the aggressor so you will be able to close the distance quickly. You can converse with the aggressor as you slowly approach. You can put your hands up with your palms open in a defensive posture as you approach to show you don’t want any trouble. (If your hands are already up with your palms open, it’s very easy to turn those open palms into fists if you must and your arms in this position can be used to block).

  7. Action
  8. If the situation appears to be escalating and you conclude you must take action, here are some possible actions:

    1. Dial 911.  If you have a phone, dial 911. State your name, your location, and what you are seeing that concerns you. Describe the others involved, and be sure to say what the aggressor is wearing so the officers that respond know what to look for. If you don’t have a phone, ask to borrow someone else’s phone.

    2. Yell. Bullies do not like attention and they especially don’t like police officers. Start yelling, “Police!” Your yells will attract the attention of others, drawing a crowd, which is exactly what the aggressor does not want.

    3. Physical Intervention.  The law allows you to use reasonable force to protect yourself or others. If you are not an experienced fighter, the general idea is to use the hard surfaces of your body (knuckles, knees, heels, elbows, palm heels) against the soft portions of the aggressor’s body (groin, eyes, throat, vital organs).

      Also, consider whether you have objects available that could be used as a weapon or “equalizer”. A belt with a metal buckle can be a weapon. A cane can be a weapon. A cup of hot coffee can be a weapon. A purse or backpack can be a very effective weapon.