CBC Investigates

Subway sex assault reports are down but that's not necessarily good news, Toronto police say

Fifty-six sexual assaults were reported on Toronto's subway system in 2015 — a substantial drop over the year before, but a figure that has police concerned the crime might be largely under-reported.

A decrease in sexual assault reports could be due to fewer victims coming forward, police say

Woman recalls time she saw a man masturbating on the subway but didn't press the alarm because she just felt awkward about it. 0:41

Fifty-six sexual assaults were reported on Toronto's subway system in 2015 — a substantial drop over the year before, but a figure that has police concerned the crime might be largely under-reported.

Reported sexual assaults on the subway were down 16 per cent from 2014, when 67 cases were reported to police, Radio-Canada has learned.

But the Toronto Police Sex Crimes unit doesn't view the decline as a positive development.

"We want the numbers to go up, because that would mean that there are more cases being reported," said Det. Sgt. Joanne Rudnick.

Reported TTC Subway Sexual Assaults 
Year20142015
Subway train3227
Subway station3529
Total6756

Source: Toronto Police Service

Rudnick also said many subway riders are not always aware of what the term "sexual assault" legally covers. Many women are still afraid to report a sexual predator even if the assault takes place in a public space like the subway, she believes.

It does not only include rape, but also "any kind of touching of a sexual nature, like grazing, groping, squeezing, rubbing up against someone," she said.

In crowded subway cars, she added, TTC passengers might not even know they've been the target of a crime.

"An arm that comes down on somebody's lap, [women] may not even realize that this was a crime perpetrated against them", said Rudnick.

For Shoaib Shaikh, a frequent subway rider, the problem is that there is often a grey zone with some of these crimes.

"If it's a light brushing up against someone ... you can't be 100 per cent sure if it's intentional or not."

Tiffany Gibson said she has seen people masturbating on the subway before, but she didn't press the alarm because she just felt awkward about it.
Toronto police say the number of reported sex crimes on the subway has decreased, but they think that's because women are still reluctant to come forward. (Bruce Reeve/CBC)

Gibson said "riders just don't feel comfortable" in these situations and they don't necessarily think to report it, perhaps because it doesn't directly affect them.

Reported sex crimes on the rise in New York, Vancouver and Montreal

While the number of reported cases went down in Toronto last year, it's not the case with other North American transit systems, such as the New York City Subway, the Montreal Metro, and the Vancouver SkyTrain.

Reported subway sex crimes in Montreal, Vancouver & New York
SubwayMontreal MetroSkyTrainNYC Subway
201440154620
201575164738
Increase 88%6%19%
No. of Stations6869469

In Montreal, the number of reported subway sex crimes almost doubled between 2014 and 2015. A spokesperson for Montreal police said this hike could mean more crimes were committed, but it could also be a sign that more riders are ready to report sex crimes.

In Vancouver, transit police have seen a 66 per cent increase in the number of reported sex crimes in the last two years, after launching a new campaign where riders can use a text code to report crime in real time.

A new awareness campaign in 2016

CBC Radio-Canada has also learned the TTC will launch a new mobile app to help riders report sex crimes.

Toronto police also confirmed that a sexual assault awareness campaign is on the agenda for 2016.

Jennifer Rollo, a spokesperson for Toronto-based support group Assaulted Women's Helpline, also believes that most crimes, whether they happen on the subway or at someone's house, are not reported.

Rollo thinks new awareness campaigns are a great idea, but also said a lot more has to change for women to feel confident enough to report a sex crime.

"Even to this day, when a woman gets assaulted, she may ask herself, 'Am I too sensitive? Too much of a prude? Too dramatic?'" said Rollo.

She stresses that education and awareness must start early, in the classroom, with lessons about consent and healthy relationships, for both young boys and girls.

Those issues were added to Ontario's sex-ed curriculum in September 2015. The Wynne government said the upgraded curriculum was needed to keep children safe in light of changes in technology since the late 1990s. The curriculum hadn't been updated since 1998.

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