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New York City launches campaign to end sexual harassment on the subway

Following international cues, NYC sets up new website, puts surveillance cameras on subways to combat assault

New York City has launched a Web page aimed at curbing sexual harassment on public transportation, joining a number of cities worldwide that have taken the fight against assault online.

The page went live on Oct. 1 on the New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) website. It features a reporting tool for victims of harassment that allows passengers to file reports anonymously, submit of photo evidence and listen to safety tips.

Sexual harassment, which can range from leering and nonverbal gestures to comments and unwanted sexual contact, affects the daily commutes of countless people around the world.  

The MTA's new effort will also bring video cameras inside subway cars, where much of the harassment takes place.

According to Kevin Ortiz, an MTA spokesman, the agency will order 940 new subway cars equipped with cameras that will come into use over the next few years.

While there are many cameras throughout the subway system, Ortiz said, there are currently none inside subway cars.

"The cameras inside the cars will act as a further deterrent," he added.

The new initiative resulted from conversations between MTA officials, the city’s Public Advocate Letitia James and organizations committed to supporting victims of sexual violence.

A statement from the Office of the Public Advocate said a recent analysis of subway crime in New York revealed that “women reported violations of a sexual nature over 3,000 times between 2008 and 2013.”

Shelby Chestnut of The Anti-Violence Project, an LGBT advocacy organization involved in pushing for the initiative, said the organization often hears stories of harassment on the MTA, particularly from gay men and transgender women.

New York's subway system often provides a safe haven for homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, but verbal or physical sexual violence can turn it into a dangerous space, Chestnut said.

While the MTA’s initiative was welcomed by advocacy groups, other major U.S. cities have tried other measures to combat sexual assault on public transportation.

In 2012, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) launched a smartphone app called “See Say” in Boston, allowing passengers to report “suspicious activity” — including harassment — directly to the Transit Police.

The Metro in Washington, D.C., also offers an online reporting tool, launched in April of 2012. It features an online form to report the details of harassment, which are then forwarded to the Metro Transit Police. Like in New York, users can submit anonymously.

Meanwhile, some international cities are dealing with the problem offline.

India’s capital New Delhi, which sparked international outrage after a student was gang raped on a bus, recently started Operation Kali, an all-female police squad trained in martial arts and equipped with the mandate to catch “perverts” on the city’s metro, Vocativ reported.

London’s Project Guardian, involving a number of agencies, ran a week of action in March with plainclothes and uniformed police officers patrolling mass transit in London. The campaign reportedly resulted in 16 arrests for sexual offenses.

Like the MTA’s initiative, London allows for passengers to report harassment, but via text message.

Organizations like Hollaback!, an international movement that fights street harassment and also participated in the New York City initiative, have for years provided a platform for victims to publicly share their narratives online.

The apathy of co-passengers who witness incidents often causes the victim to question whether the experience was a legitimate case of harassment, said Debjani Roy, Hollaback!'s deputy director.

“It leads to feelings of isolation even when people are around,” she said.

Like other transit agencies, the MTA will forward the online reports directly to the police. What the law enforcement does with the information is up to them, said Ortiz.

The eventual goal is to create an environment where sexual harassment on public transportation or the street is not dismissed as “a regular day in the life of a New Yorker,” said Roy.

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