The Met Police and London Transport Police have unveiled a new service to curb sexual assault on public transport.
The campaign, entitled “Report it to stop it“, encourages more people to come forward with their experiences, by texting when, what and where to 61016, or calling 101.
I absolutely applaud this new initiative. But – and it’s a big “but” – it will only be successful if in practice it happens exactly as they promise. We need these things to be out in the open, to encourage people to come forward, and make it absolutely clear that victims of sexual assault are not in any way to blame, and that they will be taken seriously by police.
And that’s my fear. It’s all very well starting a Tumblr and saying “We want you to feel confident on your journey” but for me, and others who have reported crimes with disturbing results, these words are hollow. The campaign claims that “90% of unwanted sexual behaviour on London transport goes unreported”; frankly, I’m only surprised it’s not more.
Despite experiencing several cases of sexual assault in my time, I’ve only ever reported it to the police twice. The first was when, aged 12, I was walking home from school an adult man came up behind and groped me (reaching underneath, between my legs, and essentially grabbing my vagina from behind); I turned, looked him full in the face and ran home. My parents reported it. God knows what happened (we never received a follow-up) but the police came to our home (two officers, in full uniform, to speak to a 12-year-old who’d been sexually assaulted). The report itself was relatively painless.
The second took place thirteen years later.
It’s 4am and I board a night bus in Putney, sitting at the front on the top deck. Shortly into the journey, I realise that the man sitting across the aisle from me is exposing himself, brandishing a massive erection, jerking off, but carefully covering his face with his jacket so that he can’t be identified.
I consider my options and (because I’m a bit drunk, rather tired, quite cold, very thick-skinned, and the 85 is frustratingly irregular at such an hour) decide to ignore the tosser (hah!) and tough out the journey. He carries on. I’m increasingly uncomfortable and nervous, but scared that if I move and acknowledge his behaviour, it’ll make the situation worse. Finally we reach my stop, but as I walk down the stairs I realise: I’m not the only one affected by this man’s actions. What if the next girl he chooses to expose himself to is more vulnerable than me? What if he decides that since flashing lacks consequences, it’s ok to touch people without their permission too? If he deems it acceptable to engage in behaviour already widely-acknowledged as “not appropriate” (i.e. jerking off in public), then where does he draw the line of acceptability?
So, instead of disembarking, I approach the bus driver. “There’s a man upstairs, exposing himself” I say, rather genially given the circumstances. He looks at me impassively, and asks,
“What do you want me to do about it?”
I am taken aback. I repeat myself, and so does he. I explain that I would like his help in throwing the perpetrator from the bus, but the only active thing he does is refuse to help. After I have requested his involvement three times, I try once more, in the simplest possible terms. I say “There is a man upstairs, publically masturbating, exposing himself to other passengers. He has taken out his penis and is waving it around. It is disgusting and offensive and I want you to do something about it”. The driver stares at me, not moving, and does precisely nothing.
So I ask for his driver number, get off the bus and immediately call the TfL Complaints line, fuming at the driver’s inaction. I give the operator a brief run-down of the situation, explaining that I want to report him, and she tells me that since the flasher has broken the law, this is a matter for the police and not for them to handle. So I search for the “non-emergency” police number (FYI: 101), and again I explain what’s happened and again say that I want to report the driver. By this point, the flasher himself holds far less significance in my mind that the shameful behaviour of the useless driver, the person I had asked for help but who had refused to give it.
The operator is shocked, sympathetic and practical in equal measures, and tells me two surprising things: one, that flashing is a “serious sexual offence”; and two, that every bus is fitted with a button which enables the driver to send a silent distress signal to nearby squad cars. The police will come to the aid of the driver and passengers, and quickly remove (and potentially arrest) the person(s) causing the trouble. All drivers have been trained in its use, and this is precisely the sort of occasion when it should be employed.
Why didn’t he help? I presume it’s because he can’t be bothered with the inevitable paperwork since the alternatives (he didn’t believe me / care / think flashing is bad) are too depressing to contemplate. By now the operator has filed my call but tells me I must visit a police station the following day to make an official report.
So that afternoon I drive down to Kingston police station and tell them I want to report a flasher on the bus. If I’m offered the chance to speak to a female officer, I honestly can’t remember, but I suspect it would have entailed returning at a later date. Instead I give my report to one of the only two officers in attendance (both male) which, I naively imagine, shouldn’t really be a problem.
I’ve made a note of the time that everything happened; it’s easy to do because I ended a phone call shortly after getting on the bus, and texted my friend about what was happening in the middle of the event. Then there’s the phone call I made to the police switchboard, immediately after disembarking. I figure it should be a relatively straightforward process.
It isn’t, of course.
For a start, the conversation doesn’t take place in a private room. Instead, I am unceremoniously sat in what is essentially the reception area, with the officer on the other side of a glass divide. There’s no privacy whatsoever and it feels like I’m at the bank asking for a loan.
Then there’s the issue that the policeman finds the whole event incredibly amusing. He is astonishingly immature, constantly sniggers, and has trouble making eye contact. At one point he says “And then he took – he took out – his, erm, erm, his, er, his – um, penis” (more sniggers). “Yes,” I say coldly, “He had his penis in his hands”. He snorts with laughter and makes a note.
Shortly afterwards he asks me to describe the offender. I admit “There’s not much to describe; he had his jacket up over his face, so I couldn’t see his features”. The officer sniggers – again – and replies “Maybe you could guess by – you know – by the size of his – you know”. He giggles. I’m utterly gobsmacked and completely lost for words. I don’t dignify him with a response, so he looks abashed and returns to his notes.
The interview continues, more or less in this vein .
Later, I tell him that the CCTV footage should be easy to find. I remind him that we were the only two people sat at the front, and describe my characteristically conspicuous clothing from the previous night (purple coat, fuchsia scarf) so that I will be easily identifiable even if I didn’t look at the camera. I cheerfully add that if they can see a man sitting across the aisle whacking one out then that’ll probably be the footage they’re after.
At this point the other police officer – evidently my interviewer’s superior – weighs in. He’s been casually wandering around the room behind the glass panel whilst my report took place (see aforementioned lack of privacy), searching through paperwork and – apparently – listening to our conversation. From across the room, he superciliously announces that it’ll be very difficult to do the research because those buses go every 8 minutes.
“Oh, um, no actually”, I tell him, “it’s ok – they technically go every 30 minutes at that time of night – although in practice it’s more like 40”.
“No”, he replies slowly, as if talking to a 5-year-old, “it’s every 8 minutes”. I am slightly confused as to why we’re even having this discussion. I remind him that it had happened during the early hours of the morning and that the 85, at that time, is a twice-hourly service. I should know, I add, since I’m a regular customer.
With an unbelievably patronising air, the officer says “I’m not saying you’re lying, but the buses go every 8 minutes”.
For the second time that afternoon, I’m unable to speak in the face of such audacity. I think four things. First: NO, THEY BLOODY DON’T. Second: anyone who claims “I’m not saying you’re lying” does, in fact, think that the other person is lying. Third: Why on earth would I lie anyway? And fourth: if you’re convinced I’m lying/confused about a perfectly provable point (check the bus timetable, you cretinous idiot), then how on earth can I be reassured that you’re taking the rest of my story seriously?
His flat-out disbelief and refusal to take my word on a purely practical, and very simple, point is deeply disturbing and like a slap across the face. And if he won’t even make the effort to quickly google bus times, am I really expected to believe that he’ll make an effort to search the CCTV once I’ve gone? Is he actually, seriously, going to look into this case? Or will he just file it under “stupid thing said by stupid woman”, and laugh at me with his colleague behind my back?
I turn back to the officer I’ve been speaking to, unsure of where to go from here. He grins sheepishly and pushes the packet of Tuc-Tuc crackers he’s been munching across the counter at me. “Cheesy biscuit?” he suggests. And thus ends the interview.
I won’t pretend that my case is representative. I’m one person, with a single experience, and I have to believe that this was a rare and unfortunate combination of particularly insensitive and incapable individuals. Still: I required assistance from three separate people in positions of authority who had both the means and (one hopes) the training to help, and all three of them (the driver, the interviewing officer, the superior officer) failed to do their jobs. And that without even mentioning the flasher himself, who’s been relegated to something of a footnote in this sorry tale.
The Report It To Stop It initiative combines the Met Police, Transport Police and has support from Transport for London, but puts the impetus on the victim to take that difficult first step. I took it, and I asked for their help, and not one of them gave me what I needed. I want to believe that things are now different but what have they done to prove it?
I have no desire to embarrass the police but most importantly, I don’t want to discourage other women (or men) from coming forward if and when they are unfortunate enough to experience something similar.
Nonetheless, I think it’s vitally important to raise awareness of how poorly and insensitively these things are and can be handled. This new campaign could be brilliant, but it’s imperative that every single police officer is trained to deliver the support it claims that they’ll provide.
It tells us “Once you’ve reported, your assigned officer will be there to help you through the whole process”. I had no “assigned” officer. The feedback I received was limited to a single letter, some months later, which said they’d found some CCTV footage but it wasn’t suitable to use for some reason or another. I never heard from them again.
They say “You might feel that the offence was too minor to report, but we take all incidents seriously”. If I was able to provide precise timings of an undeniably illegal activity which took place in front of a visible CCTV camera, yet was treated like an inconvenience, am I honestly expected to believe that the police will trust and support me if I go to them saying “A man touched my arse on the Bakerloo line at 8:45am when we were squeezed between ten other commuters”?
It’s lucky that I have a thick skin and am not easily offended or dissuaded. I was so determined to ensure that the bus driver was taken to task – not to mention the flasher himself – that nothing was going to stop me making the report, least of all a couple of immature, badly-trained police officers. But other people won’t be so dogged as me, and sexual assaults are hard enough to report as it is. Conversations can be awkward, painful, and traumatic. The real danger of this campaign, without the accompanying training and support we’re being promised, is an increase in the popular belief that “it’s so easy to report sexual assaults these days – the police are so supportive – the victims are always believed”. If someone reports an incident and receives the treatment I did, will it encourage them to report again? Will it mend their fractured confidence? Will it galvanise them to discuss the experience with their loved ones, or cause them to bury it under a layer of embarrassment and fear?
I want to believe that things have changed in five years. The process that the police now promise couldn’t be further from the experience I had, and all I can do is hope that today’s training is intense and extensive. “You will always be believed, taken seriously and treated with respect” and “We’ll always believe what you tell us and investigate every report”: please let this be the case for future victims. It certainly wasn’t for me.
I like to think that the process of reporting sex crimes is evolving, and this is the next step forwards. I suppose only time will tell. So, I urge people who are victims of sexual assault or harrassment on London’s public transport to embrace this campaign and text details to 61016. And if you aren’t happy with the way they handle it, take that to the next step too (as I wish I had done). The difference is that now we have clear, easily-accessible guidelines outlining the process, so you’ll know whether your case has been handled correctly. Perhaps if I’d seen this Tumblr six years ago, I wouldn’t have felt so helpless following the clumsy and hurtful treatment I received at the hands of Kingston’s Met Police department. I can only support the fact that we are – at least ostensibly – heading in the right direction.
“Unwanted sexual behaviour is totally unacceptable. Nothing is more important than your safety. We’ll always believe what you tell us and investigate every report.”
Please, Met Police: let your actions speak louder than words. Because on public transport in the intervening years, I’ve been groped, followed, leered at, touched, and received unpleasant comments on more occasions than I care to remember, but after my experience of reporting a sex crime, not once has it occurred to me that I should report any of these comparatively minor, and far less provable incidences. Please tell me you truly have changed. Please give victims of sexual assault the support and sincerity they deserve, and as you promise you will. Don’t let future assaults end up as nothing more than a despairing blog post in a corner of the internet.
“Our officers are trained to deal with these sort of cases. We will treat you with respect and dignity.”
Please, above all, let this be true.
(All images are screengrabs from the Report It To Stop It Tumblr page)