On the WMATA Anti-Harassment Campaign: Are we any safer than we were?

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By Allison Elder

In the last year, we have seen some good efforts at by the Washington Area Metro Transit Authority (WMATA) and the Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD) to address the issue of sexual harassment and assault in the DC public transit system.  Some notable accomplishments were listed in this article written by Stop Street Harassment and posted on the CASS website this month.

WMATA should be given credit for the fact that some actions occurred quickly once CASS testified at a 2012 DC Council Meeting about the issues faced by riders of public transportation in the city, namely the reporting website and e-mail address, and the poster campaign in the buses and trains. The results have been staggering: 126 complaints of sexual harassment or assault in less than a year of the website being online, demonstrating how much work is still ahead.  The posters have generated new and compelling dialogue about the issue of sexual harassment in public spaces. So kudos to you, WMATA for making those things happen.

Other promised efforts, however, seem (to the outside observer) to have been de-prioritized or to have fallen off the table completely.  Disturbingly, reports still surface (here, here, and here among others) where WMATA does not take the complaints seriously or react appropriately when they are made. Most critically, and perhaps pertaining to the former, there still has been no training for WMATA and MTPD employees about handling sexual harassment and assault, even though this effort has been underway for a year. Progress has been made, but the solutions are clearly in no way complete.The question I ask a year later is, “Are we any safer than we were?” Given the stories that are constantly emerging about harassment and feeling unsafe while taking public transportation, the answer is no. People, and women in particular, still face regular sexual harassment, even when the offender is known and his patterns are clear. WMATA continues to demonstrate to this community through follow-up meetings with community groups that the organization realizes that sexual harassment and assault are a problem in the transit system; however, the lack of action on a number of critical tasks suggests that the follow-through in addressing the issues slowed considerably after a seemingly strong start.

The question I ask a year later is, “Are we any safer than we were?” Given the stories that are constantly emerging about harassment and feeling unsafe while taking public transportation, the answer is no.

To counteract the forces of such institutional inertia, I suggest creating measurable goals, the progress of which should be regularly reported to outside groups such as CASS and Stop Street Harassment, in order to increase accountability. For example, rather than citing a new goal of “More efforts to spread the word about how to report and the importance of reporting,” try “All WMATA and MTPD employees will receive training on handling rider complaints of sexual harassment and assault by [enter specific, realistic date]. This training will cover both the procedures of following through on a report as well as the sensitivity with which these reports must be handled.” Clear and measurable goals give all stakeholders a clear picture of expectations and a timeline to steer the efforts.

CASS began working with WMATA in 2012 to implement the agency’s first-ever anti-sexual harassment campaign.

It is also imperative that metrics be set (and reported on) to measure the effect of these efforts. Otherwise, how will it be possible to know whether the effort and resources spent on these issues were well applied? Perhaps metrics are already in place. Perhaps more thoughtful metrics can be applied. Other community groups are working to establish such safety measures. Perhaps WMATA or one of its community partners could research and reach out to groups who are already setting their own metrics to better understand the process of their creation and use.  To get you started, here is a sample document about the process of creating metrics, what makes for a good metric, and specifically applies the process to community outreach.

So to WMATA and MTPD, let’s give credit where it is due:  thank you for your continued demonstration of willingness to meet with community leaders to address the issues of sexual harassment and assault in your transit system. CASS, credit to you as well for continuing to champion the cause of ensuring that our public spaces are safe for all who use them.  The challenge ahead is to continue the forward motion; I charge you both with the responsibility to see this effort through. Tell us:  What can we expect to see in the next year?

Allison Elder is a lifelong resident of the DC metro area.

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“My Streets, Too” is CASS’s ongoing series on personal writings on street harassment by members of the DC community. Email Renee to submit writings using your full name, initials, or anonymously (just let us know). Please be sure to use the subject line “My Streets, Too.”