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Metro says it’s cracking down on sexual harassment. But how often do complaints lead to action?

One of several posters Metro is displaying, encouraging riders to report sexual harassment. (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority)
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Since 2012, Metro has been telling female bus and train riders, “You deserve to be treated with respect.”

But despite the message to “Report Sexual Harassment,” as a poster at the McPherson Square station says, it’s unclear how often anything happens to the harasser when someone does file a complaint.

That’s not to say Metro doesn’t take action. Transit police have made a number of arrests this year, particularly for the most blatant of acts, such as an incident during the Oct. 19 afternoon commute, when a man grabbed the buttocks of a woman waiting for a train at the Rosslyn station and then rubbed up against her.

But in an interview last month, Metro Transit Police Chief Ronald A. Pavlik Jr. said he couldn’t say how many of the 79 complaints Metro has received on its special online form for reporting harassment thus far this year had led to action.

While Metro can say, for instance, that it had arrested 39 people as of Oct. 26 for indecent exposure, it doesn’t keep track of whether those arrests were prompted by a harassment complaint or something else, like the woman in the Rosslyn incident running to a nearby officer for help.

In addition, Metro can’t take action against the most common forms of harassment, such as offensive comments and leering, because they are not expressly prohibited in the way that drinking or eating on trains and buses is.

Not being able to say how often complaints lead to action is a missed opportunity when Metro still faces persistent skepticism from riders about whether anything will be done if they report harassment, said Jocelyn Frye, an expert in women’s issues and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning policy think tank. Frye served as deputy assistant to former President Barack Obama and was director of policy and special projects for former first lady Michelle Obama.

A Metro survey in April found that only half of riders who said they have been harassed reported it. That’s a sharp improvement over the 77 percent in a 2016 survey who said they’d been harassed but didn’t file reports.

But a prime reason why more incidents aren’t reported is that many “victims were unsure if anything could be done,” the most recent survey said.

Rider Effie Craven, for instance, never reported what happened to her on a Blue Line train one night in June.

As she headed toward Largo Town Center, Craven said in an interview, she found herself in a situation women dread. She was alone in the car, except for the man who sat in the seat across from her, leering and licking his lips.

Craven changed seats. The man followed, continuing to look and to leer.

She was relieved when the man finally got off.

She didn’t report it, she said, because she didn’t think anything would happen.

Jessica Raven, executive director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, an anti-harassment group, said Metro’s public education campaign makes it a leader nationally in raising awareness about harassment. But she also said many women remain skeptical that Metro will act, particularly in cases where its own employees are accused of harassment.

It doesn’t help that Metro won’t say how often it has taken action against employees accused of sexually harassing riders. Four months after we filed a public disclosure request, asking for the number of sexual harassment complaints against Metro employees and the number of disciplinary actions taken as a result, Metro hasn’t provided the information.

On June 27, @NickelButlerrr tweeted about one incident she saw at the Navy Yard station.

But she said she never reported it to Metro.

Craven, after the incident on the Blue Line, agreed the issue is complicated, and said she’s not sure what Metro could do about men who harass. “I feel like it’s less Metro’s problem and more society’s problem,” she said.

@NickelButlerrr likewise said she see catcalling by Metro employees as part of a larger issue.

“Never reported it!" she said via Twitter. "If I reported every cat call and crude movement by men towards women in public — there wouldn’t be any time left in my day lol.”

Pavlik said Metro takes complaints about harassment seriously.

The online form automatically sends an email to him and to detectives, and if a crime is involved, police will follow up with the person who filed the complaint within 24 hours.

However, he also acknowledged not all complaints lead to criminal reports.

Verbal harassment was the most common type of harassment reported by riders in a Metro survey in April. Among those who said they’ve been harassed on Metro, 64 percent said it involved something being said. The second most common issue was leering, at 42 percent.

But while the Metro rules and city law ban riders from doing things like eating or drinking on trains and buses, nothing prohibits someone from making vulgar remarks or creepily looking you up and down.

In the first six months of 2017, non-criminal harassment complaints made up a majority of the 61 harassment reports Metro received, according to a presentation to Metro’s board.

If transit officers happen to hear inappropriate remarks being made, they can tell the harasser to knock it off, Pavlik said. But that’s about all they can do.

In comparison, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit system bans “disruptive, disturbing behavior including: loud conversation, profanity or rude insults,” BART spokesman Christopher Filippi said in an email.

“Any type of language that is sexually harassing in nature would be considered a rude insult,” he said.

It’s not considered a crime there either, but at least it’s against the transit system’s rules and could get someone kicked off the train.

A bill approved by the D.C. Council on May 29 attempts to deal with sexual harassment in public spaces by establishing a legal definition for harassment as “disrespectful, offensive or threatening statements, gestures or other conduct” in areas such as streets, buses or trains.

But it does not forbid those actions. The bill’s sponsor, Council Member Brianne Nadeau, D-Ward 1, said in a statement that the aim is to “eradicate street harassment through education and training, rather than through criminalization.” Nadeau worries that making it illegal could lead to police targeting certain people.

The bill instead creates an advisory group to figure out how to train city employees to intervene and figure out what can be accomplished through public education campaigns.

Metro police has taken action in clear-cut cases, including seven arrests in August for indecent exposure, and for an Aug. 1 incident in which a man rubbed his crotch against a woman’s buttocks on a shuttle bus at Fort Totten.

Metro denied Express' request for the police records in the arrests. But transit police do have to tell the courts why they’ve arrested someone. Affidavits by the arresting officers in the cases, contained in court filings, give a picture of how transit police respond, particularly if the suspect is still on a train.

Around 3:15 pm on Aug. 14, for example, a woman riding a Huntington-bound Yellow train reported that a man wearing gray sweatpants and and holding a newspaper was masturbating in car 7398.

Police held the train at L’Enfant Plaza. As it approached the station, police saw a man wearing gray sweatpants and holding a newspaper in the car on a station camera. Officers at the scene stopped him as he got off the train and arrested him when the rider who’d made the report identified him.

When a suspect has already left the scene, Pavlik said, police can also use surveillance camera to find the person who’d filed the complaint.

Then by tracking them backwards, they’ve been able to see the encounter, take a picture of the harasser and tell officers to be on the look out for that person, he said.

At times, the investigations lead to men wanted for other crimes too. On Aug. 21, a woman at the Court House station said a man grabbed her buttocks, and later saw him standing “abnormally close" behind another woman rider with his hands down his shorts in his crotch area.

Transit police using video surveillance footage identified the man, as 58-year-old Timothy L. Day, 58, of Rockville, who was already wanted for assault and battery in Virginia. On Oct. 26, they put out a wanted poster seeking help finding him.

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