Project Guardian

Source: Rail Technology Magazine Aug/Sept 2013

RTM spoke to British Transport Police Chief Inspector Paul Garrett about a new drive to increase personal safety on London’s public transport.

A recent survey by TfL showed that 9% of women had encountered some form of “unwelcome sexual behaviour” on London’s public transport in the previous year. Approximately 300 offences are reported each year on the Tube with an additional 200 on rail services – but around 90% of women who have experienced such harassment or abuse do not report it to police. 

Under-reporting significantly affects the safety and confidence of passengers, and makes it more difficult for offenders to be caught as it masks the scale of the problem. 

Safety threat 

In response, the British Transport Police (BTP) have formed a partnership with the Metropolitan Police, TfL and the City of London Police to launch Project Guardian. 

It is a move to increase reporting of a “huge spectrum” of incidents, ranging from inappropriate comments to physical abuse, as well as a crackdown on offenders, to allow everyone to feel safe whilst travelling. 

The project also includes a dedicated text service and helpline to report incidents, although there are obvious difficulties using this on the Tube. BTP has been encouraging people to leave at the nearest station to find staff or an officer and report it. 

Initially inspired by an initiative in Boston, Project Guardian was developed with guidance from campaign groups Everyday Sexism and Hollaback UK, and has been met with widespread support from passengers. 

Chief Inspector Paul Garrett told RTM: “A significant proportion of passengers had been a victim of this, but only 10% had come forward and reported it to any kind of authority. That’s 90% not coming forward. 

“Clearly from an enforcement point of view, we need to know what’s going on in order to tackle it. Sexual offences are something that we take very seriously. This is about all of those agencies coming together to do something about it. We want to know about it so we can drill down into the intelligence and get into enforcement.” 

Keeping quiet 

There are a number of reasons why reporting is so low, ranging from shame and lack of awareness through to a society-wide normalisation of this type of behaviour. A prevailing negative perception that the police won’t take harassment seriously has also dented public confidence to come forward and report it. 

“People haven’t come forward. One of the reasons is that [people think] perhaps the police won’t take it seriously, or perhaps even more worrying that it isn’t serious enough to actually trouble the police with, becoming kind of normalised – which clearly it isn’t. We need to understand that,” Ch Insp Garrett explained. 

BTP used social media to increase awareness of the project, and to reassure the public that any sexual harassment would be punished. Activity on Twitter saw passenger interaction with the organisation “go through the ceiling”, building momentum for Project Guardian. 

Taking it seriously 

Ch Insp Garrett called it “a win-win-win”, with no downsides: “Some criminal offences, you could argue, are victimless; but this really is a victim-driven crime. From the very lowest level of the scale to the very serious things, it affects people’s lives. It affects people’s travel patterns, their ability to work, to feel empowered to go on the Tube or bus network.” 

He noted that victims were not solely female, with around 2% of incidents reported by men.

The barriers of stigma are thought to be even higher when this is the case, magnifying the rate of under-reporting. 

“They should feel safe and if they are victims of an offence they should feel they can come forward and report it and be taken seriously.” 

Project Guardian saw around 2,000 BTP officers trained to deal with sexual harassment offences, with a focus on identification of problem behaviour and victim support. 

Plain clothes officers took to the Underground in even bigger numbers during the launch to help target hotspots, and stop the behaviour in the first place. 

The scheme went live on Monday July 22, and will be running for a year on London’s public transport networks. During the launch week alone, nine people were arrested. 

“We know this is underreported, we want to know the true level of crime,” Ch Insp Garrett said. 

“We want to increase the number of people we catch, put them through the courts or whatever the right action is, and increase the confidence of the travelling public.” 

Tweeting back 

Incidents are treated seriously regardless of when they occur, and the campaign highlights how doing so could help stop such abuse from happening to others. Members of the public responding to the launch on Twitter welcomed the project, with many calling it “an important step forwards”. People were also keen to see it implemented in their local area as well as the capital. 

The BTP used social media to give real-time responses to public questions, reassuring passengers about the legitimacy of their reports and reiterating the commitment to treat each claim seriously. 

During a live Twitter interview with the BTP, Everyday Sexism’s founder Laura Bates called the project “an enormously welcome step forward in acknowledging these crimes which are so often brushed off, belittled or dismissed”. 

She called it “a brilliant, landmark moment where police are listening directly to victims’ voices – we hope the first of many collaborations!” 

Addressing those who have suffered unwelcome sexual behaviour on public transport, she added: “There is no ‘right’ response – the only person to blame is the perpetrator – nobody can say you ‘should’ have reacted differently. 

“If in doubt, report it – the police want to hear about every instance of harassment, to build up a picture of the problem.”

Turning a blind eye 

The issues surrounding under-reporting could also be tackled by fellow travellers, Ch Insp Garrett suggested. “We need to get back to basics in a very real way in a sense of having guardianship and looking after each other on the Tube.” 

People ‘turning a blind eye’ can damage victims’ confidence to report offences, and simply asking if certain behaviour is welcome, or if a person is alright, could create a far more supportive environment on the transport network and beyond. 

“It’s so frustrating, when you read some of these victim statements and they say ‘I wasn’t sure what was going on, no-one else was doing anything’. We’ve got to get that positive cycle going rather than this ‘No-one else saw it, it’s not important, I’m just going to move on’.” 

Catching criminals 

Sexual harassment can carry stigma for the individual affected, as well as confusion around intention to harm. He said: “The transport network provides some of our offenders with an easy place to operate – huge crowds of people. With that comes anonymity.”

But he added that such a consequence-free environment “isn’t the case at all”. 

“As soon you come on the Underground network, or onto a bus, you’re captured by CCTV. The person who rings up and says ‘the guy in the red t-shirt with a baseball cap did X,Y and Z to me’, we can trace where they came from. Inevitably they’ve got Oyster cards. 

“It is an environment where offences take place, but we can catch them as well – and we do.” 

Going (inter)national 

Given time, Ch Insp Garrett said the scheme “absolutely” should be rolled out onto the national network, “anywhere these offences are happening”. 

Recognising the common nature of unwanted sexual behaviour, Ch Insp Garrett concluded: “There’s no reason why this can’t be rolled out. 

“It must be happening in other transport hubs and we can take best practice everywhere as soon as we’ve proved the concept with our partners.” 

Network Rail and train operators will have their part to play if this is implemented on a larger scale, but it is difficult to imagine any objections.

 “We are getting some momentum because absolutely everyone’s on side. There isn’t really a cynical voice to be heard because there’s no cynicism in this at all.”


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