LA Metro starts counseling line to combat sexual harassmentJanuary 11, 2017 11:54pm

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Aiming to combat sexual harassment on public transportation, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority unveiled an around-the-clock counseling hotline Wednesday to provide support to riders who experience unwanted sexual advances.

The launch of the "It's Off Limits" hotline is part of a campaign encouraging riders to report sexual harassment after a 2015 survey of 20,000 riders found one in 14 passengers reported being fondled or groped aboard Metro trains and buses.

"There is no excuse and never an invitation to sexually harass. Riding the bus to work is not an invitation; waiting for the bus at a bus shelter is not an invitation; a crowded subway car is not an excuse," said Patti Giggans, the executive director of Peace Over Violence, the nonprofit group that will staff the confidential counseling hotline.

The hotline will connect callers with counselors and give them the option of reporting the incident to law enforcement. While Metro CEO Phil Washington said passengers should "absolutely" report the encounter to police before phoning the hotline, Giggans says some people may need emotional support before they can recount the incident.

"If they need that moral support, that psychological support, they want to talk about it, they want to unload it and debrief, they should call the hotline," she said. "Telling someone when you're victimized is a really important thing to do."

In 2015, Metro also launched an ad campaign and rolled out a smartphone app that allows passengers to communicate with Los Angeles sheriff's deputies and send photos of people committing lewd acts.

The agency has received 156 reports of sexual harassment, sexual assault and indecent exposure since March 2015, though it was unclear how many incidents were investigated by law enforcement, Metro spokesman Dave Sotero said. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which patrols rails and buses, could immediately provide statistics about reported cases of sexual misconduct.

Virginia Miller, a spokeswoman for the American Public Transportation Association, said the industry trade group believes Metro's service is "the only public transit hotline that helps riders after a sexual harassment incident occurs" nationwide. She commended Metro for their "innovative and forward thinking program."

Washington said fewer passengers reported being sexually harassed in a new survey — down to 15 percent compared to 22 percent in 2015 — but the agency still needed to do more to combat the issue, admitting the statistics were alarming.

"One is too many," he said. "We see incidents of sexual harassment actually decreasing, but we want to see that dwindle even more."

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Follow Michael Balsamo on Twitter @MikeBalsamo1.

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