Reports of sexual misconduct on King County’s bus system tripled last year, data from the King County Sheriff’s Office shows.
The spike comes amid an international conversation about sexual harassment and assault and a public information campaign from local authorities urging people to report misconduct on buses.
“Women in particular and certainly some men who are also victimized are saying ‘I shouldn’t have to put up with this,’ no matter the degree,” said Mary Ellen Stone, executive director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center (KCSARC), which advised King County Metro and Metro Transit Police on the campaign.
While the number of reported incidents is a fraction of total Metro rides, experts say they should be taken seriously. “When this kind of thing happens, it’s intimidating at best and abusive and assaultive at worst,” Stone said.
King County Metro Transit Police received 178 reports of harassment, indecent exposure and other sexual misconduct allegations in 2018, according to Metro Transit Police documents provided to The Seattle Times through a public records request. There were 59 similar reports in 2017. Last April, Metro launched a campaign urging people to report misconduct.
“While we anticipated an increase in reporting, we did not anticipate a [tripling] in reported incidents of sexual misconduct occurring on our transit system,” said a review compiled by Metro Transit Police, the King County Sheriff’s Office deputies assigned to Metro’s system.
Fewer than half of the cases have resulted in an arrest so far, though some are still open, said Metro Transit Police Captain José Marenco.
The uptick likely reflects more reporting rather than more incidents, based on trends at other agencies and research about underreporting of sexual misconduct, Marenco said. About three in four sexual assaults are not reported to police, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), which used federal government statistics to compile that figure. Metro’s campaign covers sexual harassment and other misconduct as well as assault.
People harassed or assaulted while on transit may hesitate to report because they don’t think they’ll be believed or “in this case just want get away from the situation,” said Stone from KCSARC. “They may feel like they can’t do anything about it except get off the bus as quickly as they can.”
Incidents in 2018 include allegations of groping, sexual comments and multiple reports of male passengers masturbating, sometimes while looking at women on the bus, according to a Metro Transit Police log of 2018 incidents. The list includes summaries of each case written by a sergeant.
One report said a man touched a woman on or near her crotch while she was intoxicated and passed out on a Rapid Ride bus. In another report, a 16-year-old girl said a boy sat next to her and rubbed her legs in a sexual manner. The girl punched the boy and reported the incident at school.
The behavior is also sometimes directed at bus drivers, the summary of reports shows. In one case, a male passenger reportedly remained on the bus until all other passengers had left and then repeatedly asked the female driver if he could kiss her and she refused.
“The driver later documented [the incident in a security report] stating she is in fear of the passenger and took time off of work due to this incident,” the log of incidents said.
In a fourth report, a passenger who had his hands down his pants harassed another female driver while she was driving the bus. When the driver left the bus on a break, the man reportedly followed her and told her, “Don’t scream or I’ll shoot you.”
Reports of sexual misconduct on Metro’s system were already increasing in the first months of 2018, before the campaign was launched, according to a Sheriff’s Office memo.
Posters urging people to report misconduct are now on most buses, according to Metro, and officers and bus drivers received training about the campaign. Training focuses on why victims may not report and how to be supportive of people reporting.
“When a victim steps forward and says something happened, how they are treated by the person they report to is going to be key in that victim continuing or being willing to report to the police,” Marenco said.
Metro’s system lacks one avenue of communication for people who may find themselves in a dangerous situation. Unlike Sound Transit’s security line, riders cannot text Metro to report harassment although people can text 911 in King County. For people who fear the person harassing them, texting can be a discreet way to ask for help.
Metro said last year it was working on a texting service but has not yet implemented one. A spokesman cited the complexity of creating and staffing a text service as the reason for the delay. Metro buses see about 400,000 boardings each weekday compared to about 76,000 on light rail and 63,000 on Sound Transit Express buses.
In 2018, Sound Transit Security received 3,069 calls, texts and emails reporting various types of incidents, about 16.5% of them by text. Two reports were about indecent exposure and none was about sexual harassment, according to data provided by Sound Transit. The agency received 56 reports of other types of harassment, according to the figures.
For women, harassment on buses and in other public spaces can feel routine.
Transit authorities in New York, Washington, D.C., and other cities have launched public campaigns similar to Metro’s.
In Washington, D.C., a 2018 survey found half of victims never reported the incident, down from more than three-fourths two years earlier. Among bystanders, 53 percent had never reported witnessing harassment, according to the 1,000-person online survey by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, D.C.’s transit system.
Verbal harassment, leering and being rubbed up against in a sexual way were the most common forms of harassment survey respondents said they experienced. Women were twice as likely as men to experience harassment on public transportation, according to the transit authority.
In response to another online survey by New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation, respondents who didn’t report explained why: “I didn’t bother because I didn’t think they would do anything,” one wrote. “The notion of reporting everyday harassment to the authorities is bizarre to me. What would they do?” said another.
Enforcing laws against harassment can also be labor-intensive for law enforcement, said Dorothy Schulz, a retired commuter railroad police captain and professor emerita at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She credited societal shifts and the advent of cellphone videos to catch perpetrators in the act for a recent increase in interest.
Increased reporting indicates “that it’s obviously a bigger problem than [transit agencies] believed it to be,” Schulz said, “and they need to try to come up with some sort of way to deal with it.”
What to do: If you experience harassment on a King County Metro bus, tell your driver, call Metro Transit Police at 206-296-3311 or call 911. If you see someone else being harassed or assaulted, alert the bus driver or call 911 or Metro Transit Police.
On Sound Transit trains and buses, call or text 206-398-5268 or 911. If you text, Sound Transit advises including the direction you’re headed and the closest stop as well as what’s happening. If you’re on a Link light rail train, include the car number located on the wall at either end of the train if you can. Reach KSARC’s 24-hour sexual assault resource line at 888-998-6423.