Amid outcries from riders, grassroots advocates and politicians for more prevention and enforcement of sexual harassment on the subway system, three New York City Council committees — Transportation, Women's Issues and Public Safety — and officials from the New York Police Department (NYPD) and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) met recently to discuss the issue and ways to curb the growing problem.
"The numbers may not support it, but [sexual harassment] does happen with great frequency," explains Oraia Reid, executive director/co-founder of the Brooklyn-based RightRides for Women's Safety, a grassroots organization that hopes to build safer communities by ending gender-based harassment and sexual assault.
In his testimony during the hearing, Transit Bureau Chief James Hall of the NYPD echoed Reid's sentiments, stating that the department strongly suspects sexual harassment is a highly underreported crime, despite data that shows as of Nov. 15, 2009, there had been 587 complaints and 412 arrests. "Many victims feel that there is nothing that can be done about such a fleeting incident and, worse, some feel an undeserved sense of shame that prevents their reporting the crime," he said.
Additionally, the police data shared by Hall also typed the ages of the victims - females over 17 — and the perpetrators — 39-year-old males.
Hall also discussed how crime, overall, on the system was on the decline - from 48 index crimes with a ridership of 3.5 million per day in 1990 to the current 5.3 crimes with a ridership of 5.2 million riders per day — thanks to programs such as the NYPD's Transit Order Maintenance Sweeps, or TOMS, which uses a multi-faceted approach to increase police presence on the system.
The numbers, however, are even more misleading according to Reid and others calling for more enforcement and prevention, because they say the NYPD only tracks assaults that fall into the felony range, which often doesn't include if victims are ogled, groped, flashed, harassed or witness any other types of lewd acts.
In his testimony, Hall added that his department had been in contact with its counterparts in police agencies from around the world and found that other cities face similar problems.
Another major issue of these sexual harassment crimes, says Reid, is that the victims are most often women, pointing to an overall safety issue for female passengers.
In fact, in a report recently published by the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University's College of Business, "How to Ease Women's Fear of Transportation Environments: Case Studies and Best Practices," Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris surveyed 131 transit agencies and cities throughout the U.S., interviewed representatives of U.S. women's interest groups and examined case studies of innovative safety-program models and found a gap between women's well-documented transit safety needs and programs in the U.S. that respond to them.
"The perception that a bus station, train car, parking lot or particular neighborhood is dangerous forces many women to alter their travel patterns," said Loukaitou-Sideris, a professor of urban planning at the UCLA School of Public Affairs.
For its part, the MTA has made several efforts to increase awareness of the problem of sexual harassment and what a rider should do if it happens to them.
The awareness campaign includes ads, printed brochures and on-board announcements urging riders that if they are touched improperly to not stand for it, feel ashamed or be afraid to speak up and "report it to an MTA employee or police officer."
"NYCT is committed to raise customer awareness on various personal safety and security issues," said Charles Seaton, spokesperson for the MTA's New York City Transit. "Our sexual harassment awareness campaign is part of our ongoing efforts to communicate to our customers, provide information to prevent and report crimes, and support NYPD's efforts."
Additionally, information on the MTA's Website gives tips on how riders can protect themselves, including advising riders to follow their own instincts if they feel uncomfortable about a person or location and avoiding empty cars, especially late at night.
To help create more focus on the situation, Councilwoman Jessica S. Lappin introduced a bill that would require the police to collect sexual harassment data on the subway system.
Reid says that her group and the larger New Yorkers for Safe Transit, a coalition of several grassroots organizations, support Lappin's proposal and are also currently working on a bill with Assemblyman Jim Brennan. That bill would require greater transparency between the captured sexual harassment and assault crime data, including breaking the data down by subway line, station and time, and to have the NYPD and MTA release the information together in a comprehensive way that can benefit the public.
"We just don't know how the NYPD classifies 'sex offenses' and exactly how many reports and arrests have been made," says Reid. "However, given that only about 10 percent of survivors of sexual assault will file a report, I believe that there is a similar correlation between the numbers of those experiencing sexual harassment/assault and those reporting it."