Transit police and Hollaback! Vancouver target transit harassment

The spring weather has arrived in Vancouver. The cherry blossoms are blooming, jackets are coming off, and most women are bracing themselves for the downside to spring weather: increased occurrences of street and transit harassment. This year, Vancouver will participate in International Anti-Harassment Week, which launches April 13, and credit goes to a community organization called Hollaback! Vancouver and Metro Vancouver Transit Police.

Such an initiative is not only timely, but much needed. Hollaback! notes that in Canada, 58 per cent of women surveyed indicated they don’t feel safe on transit.

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The transit police force, which consists of 165 sworn officers and more than 65 civilian support staff, has more often been in the limelight for alienating community groups than collaborating with them.

Bus riders will recall last summer Transit Police launched a campaign called “See Something Say Something,” calling on transit riders experiencing harassment or assault to report it because “not reporting sexual assault is the real shame. Nobody should touch, gesture, or say anything that makes you uncomfortable or unsafe.”

Transit Police were roasted in social media for the campaign, which didn’t acknowledge the valid reasons victims might not report sexual harassment. It also seemed to leave the responsibility for ending harassment with the victims.

The local chapter of Hollaback!, an organization that aims to create discussion about street harassment, called Transit Police on the misstep, and now, just in time for peak harassment season, the two organizations are launching a joint awareness campaign that gives practical tools to bystanders and targets of harassment.

The campaign is what Transit Police should have launched in the first place, a multifaceted campaign than leans on the expertise of a community organization with international experience.

Unlike last year’s misstep, the new campaign will encourage witnesses on buses and other transit vehicles to make the decision to become active bystanders. As interveners, witnesses can take an active role in sending the message that harassing behaviour is unacceptable and victims are not alone.

For victims of transit harassment, several supports are offered. Hollaback! has launched an app where targets of harassment can share their stories, and help populate a map flagging hot spots across the city. Victims of harassment can vent through the app, or share their stories online with the hashtag #YouCanEndHarassment.

The initiative kicked off 10 a.m., April 13. Representatives from both Hollaback! Vancouver and Transit Police were at Commercial-Broadway station to share tips on how everyone can do their part to reduce harassment on transit.

Still in the realm of Transit Police listening to community, this initiative launches less than two months after Transit Police announced the end of a controversial agreement with Canada Border Services Agency. Until February of this year, the police body held fare evaders who lacked proper documentation for CBSA. In late 2013, an undocumented migrant hotel worker named Lucia Vega Jimenez was turned over to CBSA. She subsequently committed suicide in her cell at an immigration detention centre at YVR.

An inquest didn’t motivate any significant policy changes, but a community coalition called Transportation Not Deportation drew public attention to the relationship between CBSA and Transit Police. They also met directly with the police force, and influenced the decision to end the agreement.

In the current transit referendum debate, the transit police’s reputation hasn’t exactly helped. Any reason to criticize management of our transit system is fodder for the No side. TransLink has taken a beating.

A cynic might wonder if the police force’s recent partnerships with community groups is simply a move to improve their image. But I choose to be an optimist and think that perhaps the No side in the referendum has rallied enough public outrage to rattle the cage of TransLink and the police that patrol our transit system.  Maybe we’ll see change for the better, whatever the outcome of the referendum.

Without knowing their true motivations, I’ll say I welcome Transit Police better living the mandate they promised at their inception in 2004, that is “being approachable, accessible and accountable to the community.”  

Whether the transit police are taking these steps because they have seen the light or want a PR win, the community organizations working with them now have their hearts in the right place, and are guiding us to a safer, more just transit system, and that’s worth the fare to me.

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