Leering, groping, exposing: OC Transpo reporting tool reveals bad bus behaviour

CBC News obtained hundreds of online incident reports submitted through OC Transpo's new anonymous reporting system — many of which told how 'absolutely violated,' 'disgusted' and 'terrified' passengers felt because of other transit users.

Year-old online tool chronicles more than 100 complaints of harassment, sex assault, uncomfortable situations

OC Transpo launched its "Let OC Transpo Know" campaign a year ago to encourage people to come forward if they felt uncomfortable or unsafe while riding transit in Ottawa. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

In one report, a woman told OC Transpo anonymously that she was so frightened of a man who repeatedly harassed and followed her that she stopped riding the 94 bus.

"He kept saying I was Palestinian and Palestinians do bad things in Ottawa," she wrote.

In another, a woman came forward requesting a special constable be placed onboard so she didn't have to confront a man who leered at her, licked his lips, smiled at her, and then sat uncomfortably close. 

Then, there's the report of a man who described another male passenger sitting across from him, making "very direct eye contact" and lifting up the leg of his shorts to reveal his genitals.

"He continued to touch his genitals for the entirety of the 20-minute bus ride while staring directly at me," he wrote. 

I felt I needed to make this report ... I do not want anyone to be placed in a situation similar where they feel harassed or vulnerable.- Bus passenger's report after man groped himself onboard while staring at him

That passenger was caught so off guard he didn't tell the bus driver what happened. Instead, he — like the other two women — turned to OC Transpo's new online reporting tool to report what happened, so that no one else had to feel as vulnerable and harassed as they did.

These are three of the 115 cases detailed in OC Transpo online incident reporting forms from the first 10 months of the initiative, which launched last June, from riders who felt harassed, uncomfortable or unsafe.

CBC News obtained the incident forms through a municipal access to information request.

The documents featured graphic excerpts from riders, the majority of whom are women, describing how "absolutely violated," "disgusted" and "terrified" they've felt by men lurking, groping or even taking cell phone snapshots up women's dresses.

In at least one case, information from an online report led to charges against a man kissing women without their permission. 

Julie Lalonde is the founder of the Ottawa branch of Hollaback, a group that fights against street harassment. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

'People are reporting more incidents'

The women's anti-violence group that fought for two years for the city to launch this online reporting tool calls the first year a "victory." 

People are using the tool ... People are feeling more comfortable talking about their experiences.- Julie Lalonde , Ottawa  Hollaback

"People are using the tool," said Julie Lalonde, the founder of Ottawa's chapter of Hollaback. 

"People are reporting more incidents than before. People are feeling more comfortable talking about their experiences. So we're feeling really good a year into this project."

Ottawa Hollaback started pushing the city for this initiative after holding a town hall in May 2013 about riders' experiences on OC Transpo. Lalonde said she had heard from women who'd been licked, groped and harassed and didn't report what happened, either because they didn't think it was criminal or feared authorities wouldn't take their claims seriously.

"When we approached [OC Transpo] in 2013 there was a lot of hostility, a lot of resistance," said Lalonde. "They just did not believe this was an issue. But we really insisted [that] if you create a space for people to tell their stories, they will. This stuff is happening."

Lalonde said the fact OC Transpo has vowed to take those reports seriously has helped repair the relationship between their two organizations.

"We're feeling like we are making a bit of progress, but we still have some sticking points that we continue to persist on," said Lalonde. 

Hollaback wants to see this campaign expanded to encourage other bus riders to speak up or intervene if they witness someone being threatened. (Ashley Burke/CBC)

Barrhaven 'kissing bandit' arrested

The anonymous data collected through the new tool allows OC Transpo, for the first time, to uncover criminal trends that could prevent incidents on buses before they happen. 

OC Transpo says its biggest success came from an online report submitted by a concerned mother that helped police track down and charge a 65-year-old man who was allegedly preying on women in Barrhaven and had been dubbed the "kissing bandit."

The mom reported her daughter was targeted at Longfields station on July 8, 2015, but she wasn't sure if the man's behaviour was criminal or not. 

"He took her face in his two hands and kissed her on the cheek," wrote the mother in a report obtained by CBC News. "Spoke gibberish ... and kissed her again. She felt very uncomfortable." 

He took her face in his two hands and kissed her on the cheek ... and kissed her again.- Mother of daughter assaulted 

OC Transpo followed up with the family and got in touch with police, according to James Babe, a chief special constable with OC Transpo.

Officers had been on the lookout for a man that matched the same description and had kissed other women. OC Transpo scoured its security footage at the station for an image, according to Babe.

"We were able to get an actual photograph of the individual," Babe said. "Within an hour and a half of speaking with police in Barrhaven, that gentlemen was apprehended and in custody."

"Without the online report, we wouldn't have known the incident occurred," he added. "We're here to listen. No crime is too small. No incident is too small for us to know." 

Police laid sexual assault-related charges against this man, who allegedly kissed or tried to kiss women and girls in the city's Barrhaven area in 2015. (Ottawa Police Service)

Anonymous reports used to discover crime trends 

Since the launch of the reporting tool, OC Transpo has taken one of its special constables out of the field and reassigned him so that his primary responsibility is to find out where and when incidents are most likely to occur. 

OC Transpo's computer system allows staff to pinpoint precise locations and bus routes that are known to have notorious problems. For example, the transit agency deployed additional security to one bus route after receiving numerous reports that intoxicated passengers were causing problems.  

So far, OC Transpo says it has received more than 400 reports online in the past 14 months, including all sorts of offences and customer service complaints. 

"That's another thing we're really proud of," said Lalonde. "That's maybe a smaller victory, but for us it's quite big to see that OC Transpo's now finally looking at trends ... rather than treating every incident in isolation." 

Big hurdle to expand ads and ask bystanders to intervene 

But Ottawa Hollaback also says there's more work to be done, particularly by putting "more focus on bystander intervention," said Lalonde.

The group is continuing to push OC Transpo to expand its "Let OC Transpo know" advertising campaign on buses and at stations, hoping the messages will not simply encourage victims to speak up about inappropriate behaviour but also urge bystanders to intervene.

"We really want to get to a place where we can talk to people about what you do if you see someone making someone else uncomfortable on the bus," said Lalonde.

"You have a role to play. Not just putting the onus on the person who has been targeted or on the driver to do absolutely everything." 

OC Transpo hasn't gotten onboard with the idea, said Lalonde, who wants the city to educate passengers that if they see someone in trouble to ask them if they know the person or go up to the front of the bus and tell the driver.

Lalonde said the city is concerned that if other people get involved, the problem could escalate.

"It is definitely the biggest hurdle we've had to jump," said Lalonde. "OC Transpo sees it as a liability. It's a concern for them. What if I intervene and I get hurt? Am I going to sue OC Transpo?"

OC Transpo said there are always opportunities to update its campaigns and promised to talk about it at the next meeting with its community stakeholders.