Police co-operation with campaigners shows promise for tackling sexual harassment on public transport

Laura Smith

With womens’ campaign groups ‘involved at every step’, Project Guardian – an initiative to tackle sexual assault and unwanted sexual behaviour on public transport in London – could mark a turning point for dealing with the problem, says Laura Smith

It would seem a given that a woman of any age should feel safe travelling from one place to another, without the need for a chaperone. In our post-feminist age, we might congratulate ourselves that fear of inappropriate attention and intimidation from men belongs to another time and possibly another place.

Not so, according to Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism project, which encourages women to report their experiences anonymously. Her project has recorded over 5,000 incidents of women receiving unwanted attention while on public transport, including being groped, grabbed, flashed at, propositioned, called names, followed, threatened with rape, kissed, cornered, photographed and even masturbated on and physically attacked.

Those targeted include schoolgirls and teenagers as well as adult women. One teenage girl said her experiences had made her terrified of travelling alone, particularly in the dark. “I think it’s utterly appalling that people think it’s OK to treat girls like this,” she told the project.

Thankfully, those responsible for policing London’s underground, bus and train network have woken up to the scale of the problem. In July, the British Transport Police, Transport for London (TfL), the Metropolitan Police Safer Transport Command and the City of London Police joined forces to launch Project Guardian, a citywide initiative to help reduce sexual assault and unwanted sexual behaviour on public transport in London.

The catalyst was a report by TfL that revealed around 15% of women have experienced unwanted sexual behaviour on the transport network, but only 10% had reported it to police, with most saying they didn’t think it was serious enough to report.

Project Guardian hopes to challenge that perception with three main goals: to increase reporting of such incidents, to increase arrests and to increase the confidence of travellers.

“As somebody who has written extensively about some of the police’s less than finest hours, it is encouraging to see a group of senior officers calling in the expertise that they don’t have”

The police hardly have a shining record when it comes to dealing with sexual offences – not to mention that the Metropolitan police has now set up an internal inquiry to investigate accusations of sexual offences by its own officers against victims of crime. But if Project Guardian sounds like lip service, the indications are otherwise.

Unusually, three campaigning groups have been heavily involved in the drawing up of the project: End Violence Against Women, Hollaback London and the Everyday Sexism project. The British Transport Police approached all three groups to act as ‘critical friends’ and all have been impressed at their willingness to listen and learn.

“I was sceptical initially,” says Bates. “But they have been outstanding all the way through, involving us at every step of the process.” Her initial presentation detailing the stories of ten women so impressed senior officers that it was later recorded and shown to every one of the 2,000 officers involved in the initiative. Bates says two of her non-negotiables – always believe the victim and treat everything seriously, no matter how seemingly minor – were adopted without question. The other two women’s groups involved are similarly positive about the working relationship.

As somebody who has written extensively about some of the police’s less than finest hours, it is encouraging to see a group of senior officers calling in the expertise that they don’t have, and acting on, rather than co-opting, it.

Chief Inspector Paul Garrett of the British Transport Police, who is number two on Project Guardian, told Positive News that Everyday Sexism was able to fill a very real “intelligence gap” on this problem within the police and offer a sounding board for whether the measures they were considering would work. “The days of the police being conceited enough to think we can deal with these problems on our own are long gone,” he says.

So a remarkable lack of cynicism and mutual respect on all sides: and it seems to be having an impact. In a ‘week of action’ involving patrols by 185 plainclothes officers in late July, there were 24 reports of inappropriate sexual attention and ten people were arrested, compared with 19 reports and four arrests the previous week. It’s early days but the hope is that the targeting of ‘hotspots’, plainclothes operations, uniformed patrols and the specialist training will pay dividends. An awareness campaign is planned for the autumn and the project could then be rolled out nationally.

Having witnessed my fair share of threatening behaviour in a lifetime on London’s tubes and buses – a group of boys shouting “We’re gonna rape you” at a schoolgirl getting off a bus; an older man getting uncomfortably close to a sleeping young woman on the tube – I hope it works.

Encouragingly, Project Guardian is not a one-off. The three campaigning groups involved are at the forefront of an inclusive and irreverent new wave of feminism, which is challenging unacceptable male behaviour in a way that makes me proud. The fact that institutions like the police service are listening to these bright young women makes me even prouder.

Photo title: The British Transport Police is now working alongside womens' campaign groups to help tackle sexual harassment on public transport

Photo credit: © James Bissett

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