WASHINGTON – When the doors close, some Metro commuters hold their breaths.
Will someone make an inappropriate sexual remark? Will someone flash them, touch them or make them feel uncomfortable?
In hopes of mitigating some of that unwanted attention, Metro launched an anti-sexual harassment campaign last year throughout trains, stations and buses in the region.
“Rub against me and I’ll expose you,” reads one sign.
“I’m not the one who should be ashamed,” reads another.
The public service announcements were adapted from a similar campaign held in Massachusetts, says Metro spokeswoman Caroline Lukas. The idea is to raise awareness and encourage people to speak out against harassment.
“Safety is the No. 1 priority for Metro,” Lukas says. “This is something that required action.”
That action came in the form of a task force created in early 2012. Metro teamed up with the advocacy group Collective Action for Safe Spaces and came up with a long-term agenda for ending public harassment.
To facilitate the process, Metro launched a Web portal that makes it easier for commuters to report incidents to transit police. Simply fill out a date, time and description of the suspect, and law enforcement officials are supposed to handle the rest.
“We’re moving in the right direction by not only creating culture change within the Metro system, but also creating cultural change outside of the Metro system,” says Collective Action for Safe Spaces executive director Chai Shenoy.
“People are talking about it more. People are starting to recognize that sexual harassment, which was always deemed an inconvenience, is also a crime.”
Despite this apparent shift, from March to December of last year, only one arrest was made as a result of information reported through the online tool. But this number can be misleading, Metro says.
Out of the 99 incidents reported through the website, just 52 were deemed criminal. Of those, only 22 of the victims wanted to file a police report, which led to the arrest last summer.
“We can’t press charges and we can’t prosecute unless we have somebody as a victim who says this actually occurred,” Lukas says.
Similar statistics for 2013 are not yet available, according to Metro, but a harassment arrest was made last month when transit police tracked down a 19-year-old man who had repeatedly grabbed a female commuter.
Part of the reason Metro continues to endure growing pains, says Shenoy, is that there is a disconnect between some WMATA employees and commuters.
“I had a man expose himself to me once,” Annie Devine Sickmen says in a Facebook comment to WTOP. “I called Metro police and they took a report, but I never heard anything again.”
This situation is not unique. WMATA held internal outreach efforts when the campaign first launched, but some complain that not all Metro employees are up to speed on how to handle harassment complaints.
“[I] was unfortunately harassed twice by the same guy,” writes Ashley Creel on Facebook. “First time reported him to the manager on duty at the station we both got off at. Second time I stood up to him because obviously reporting him didn’t do much.”
As Metro moves into the second year of its anti-harassment campaign, officials are looking to improve how these cases are handled. This includes offering better training and a more robust internal dialogue.
“I think it just needs to be more broadly enforced and encouraged among our staff and employees,” Lukas says.
“We are trying to figure out what are the best practices and what would be the best way for our front-facing employees to handle these situations.”
Collective Action for Safe Spaces will continue to work with Metro to ensure that transit police and WMATA employees are using the same guidelines to handle harassment.
“There is a lot of training and community education that needs to be done on what precisely police need to have to make certain arrests or find probable cause to make certain arrests,” Shenoy says.
Despite the learning curve, both Metro and the advocacy group are looking forward to continuing the program and making it bigger in the future.
WMATA plans to launch a new ad campaign later this year, and will be hosting outreach events throughout the city.