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Making the environment “hostile for offenders”: Undercover with the British Transport Police

Spotlight joined plain-clothes officers as they patrolled the Tube searching for incidents of sexual assault and harassment.

By Zoë Grünewald

I’m not too sure what I was expecting when I agreed to join the British Transport Police (BTP) on one of their undercover patrols of the London Underground. Maybe a small part of me was hoping I would meet a James Bond type, equipped with state-of-the-art electronic earpieces hooked up to a central surveillance system, or perhaps even old-school detectives wearing trench coats, holding newspapers with holes for the eyes cut into them. When I meet the team outside Oxford Circus station during rush hour, they are just four normal-looking men in puffa jackets and backpacks. I discreetly ask one if he is having intel fed to him as we speak and he laughs. “It’s not like the movies,” he assures me.

Alongside the Metropolitan Police Service and the City of London Police, the BTP polices transport across London – specifically, the Tube, trains, trams and Overground, where the other forces may tackle road collisions, cycle safety and anti-social behaviour on buses, among other things. Across the rest of the country, the BTP is the national police force for the railways, and has had plain-clothes officers patrolling travel networks every day across England, Scotland and Wales since the force was first established in 1949.

In April 2013, the BTP, alongside Transport for London, created “Project Guardian” – an ongoing multi-agency operation specifically targeting sexual offences across the capital’s public transport network. The campaign is no longer running, but officers continue to patrol the network undercover, looking out for sexual offenders. Members of the force undergo substantial training in recognising the specific behaviours and patterns of sexual offenders. The patrols are primarily intelligence-led – using crime statistics, officers identify and target certain crime hotspots, sometimes looking for specific suspects and sometimes watching out for opportunistic individuals not yet known to them.

Of course, data-led policing is not without its critics. In 2019, researchers found the practice could pose a serious racial discrimination risk. However, for the BTP, the data focuses on specific tube lines and times of the day, as sexual offences tend to happen in busy, fast-moving locations. We start our patrol on the central line during rush hour, simply because it was extremely busy and there was a publicly known lack of CCTV cameras, which offenders may use to their advantage. When I asked who we were looking for, the officers said that the physical profile of a sex offender is virtually impossible to predict. In the past, city workers, priests, solicitors and construction workers have been just some of the individuals charged with a variety of sexual offences on the London transport network – some caught in the act, some apprehended through intelligence from previous offences.

Women’s trust in the police has been severely compromised over the past few years. A November 2021 YouGov poll found that 47 per cent of women – and 40 per cent of men – said their trust had decreased since the murder of Sarah Everard. On the same day as my patrol, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) released a damning report revealing “disgraceful behaviours” in the Met Police, including “racism, misogyny, harassment and the exchange of offensive social media messages”. IOPC regional director for London Sal Naseem said “the behaviour we uncovered was disgraceful and fell well below the standards expected of the officers involved”.

[See also: After Sarah Everard: What the case revealed about violence against women]

Detective chief inspector Sarah White is the BTP force lead on violence against women and girls, sexual harassment and sexual offences. White says that while she “absolutely” understands and appreciates “why there is concern and mistrust around the police”, she is confident in the BTP’s ability to deal with such behaviour within policing. “We’re very upfront about how we investigate, identify, suspend, discipline and sack people, and in the last [few] weeks we have dismissed an officer for inappropriate conduct.” She also says that the BTP is accredited with the White Ribbon charity, “who drive the ethos and belief that violence against women and girls will not be tolerated”, and that there are solid procedures in place around the specific concerns of plain-clothes police officers. “We have a very clear policy now that if an individual was stopped by a plain-clothes officer and doesn’t feel confident, the officer will call into the control room on an open mic… and if they’re [still] not comfortable in any way, then they should absolutely dial 999.”

Over the past few years, the BTP has launched a number of projects, in addition to Project Guardian, targeted at making the networks safer for women. This includes an ongoing campaign that draws the public’s attention to identifying sexual harassment behaviours – from staring, leering and catcalling to sexual offences and stalking. The BTP has also launched a number of technological innovations to support survivors and victims, including an anonymous reporting system that is, according to White, “unheard of in this space”. White explains that the force is also designing an app that “encourages bystander intervention”, equipping users with advice and guidance in an ongoing situation. It will offer tools for reporting harassment and assault, so an individual can report an incident in a “real covert manner”. The app will also allow individuals to report “environmental factors and concerns”, such as broken lighting.

In January, Spotlight reported that the perception of safety is an important factor in a woman’s decision to use public transport. White understands this – her priority is to create policy that focuses on changing the behaviours of offenders and bystanders, “not the women and girls who are at the centre of this, because why should women and girls have to change their behaviour to just exist, travel and live?”

[See also: Who’s responsible for women’s safety on their commute home?]

As well as the anonymous reporting system, the force actively encourages individuals to report historic incidents. “It doesn’t matter how little they think they can remember because you’ll be surprised how little we need to run an investigation,” says White. She also tells me that there is no pressure for any individual to see the process through – the force also runs evidence-based prosecutions, where the victim is absent. “We might say, well, we haven’t got enough evidence for sexual assault – but we’ve got enough for an outrage in public decency or exposure or criminal damages… and we’ll prosecute him for that.”

White feels that, overall, the systems and procedures put in place by the BTP are having encouraging results. The figures for reported harassment and assault on transport networks are rising, but White thinks that’s because “people are sharing their experiences” and not because crime is increasing: “We don’t think there’s been an uplift in individuals committing offences; we just think we’re hearing it more, which is good because it means we can shape how we deal with it and how we address it”. In November 2021, Nick Stripe, the head of crime statistics at the Office for National Statistics (ONS), stated that “caution should be exercised” when interpreting a rise in sexual offence crime figures. Stripe tweeted: “The rise could be due to an increase in victim reporting as lockdowns eased, an increase in the number of victims, or to an increase in victims’ willingness to report incidents, potentially as a result of high-profile cases and campaigns in recent times.”

But Kate Bex, a QC at Red Lion Chambers, is more sceptical. She tells me: “I’m curious as to know why [the BTP has] gone with that explanation… I would simply say it’s impossible to know whether that’s because of an increased willingness to report or whether it’s because of a growing problem.” Ultimately, what Bex and White do agree on is that increased reporting will only have a positive impact on data analysis, and will help officers to understand whether offences are going up, or whether women just feel more supported in reporting. White tells me that encouraging women to report harassment and assault is of great importance to their work for a number of reasons. “Between 4 to 7 per cent of victims of sexual harassment have reported it to the police, which concerns me in many ways,” she says. “Firstly, this means about 96 per cent of people aren’t getting any support. Secondly, they’re not getting a voice or an opportunity to tell us how they’re feeling and what’s going on. And thirdly, we’re policing with really limited information, and we really need to get a full understanding of what this is like across the network.”

All the officers I meet have been in the field for many years and are keen to tell me how much they love the job. Exciting, rewarding and exhausting, the shifts can be up to ten hours long, and involve hopping on and off various Tube and train lines throughout London, trailing and arresting offenders. The officers work as a group to inform each other of potential suspects through a system of hand gestures and instant messages. Since the job is so heavily focused on scanning individuals and assessing their behaviours, the officers explain it can be hard to switch off. One tells me that his partner makes him sit facing the wall when they go out to dinner, otherwise he gets too easily distracted analysing the behaviour of the other diners.

Offenders may target particularly busy carriages, where they can use a lack of personal space as an excuse and alibi for assault and harassment. We stand on the platform, apart but still within eyesight of each other, observing as individuals get on and off busy Tube carriages. Officers may watch out for someone who looks in every Tube carriage while walking down the platform, trying to find a victim, or a person who lets multiple trains pass before getting on one. Data teams work tirelessly behind the scenes – tracking CCTV cameras and ticket gates, they can help to spot individuals “hanging around” the Tube network, as well as identify suspects from recently reported incidents. During the initial safety briefing, one officer makes me aware that the last individual to join them on patrol was, astonishingly, sexually harassed in front of them. The perpetrator was immediately apprehended and, luckily, the victim wasn’t too shaken by the incident. But it does happen, the officer tells me, so I need to be prepared.

The nature of the work has changed considerably since Covid. Masks and irregular travel patterns make perpetrators harder to identify and apprehend. Before, the team could assume that someone who committed an offence on a busy commuter line may well return in the following days. Now, with flexible working, it’s difficult to know when they’ll next use transport. The nature of assault and harassment has also evolved with technological advancement. The officers tell me that covert recording devices and other forms of digital harassment, such as upskirting and cyber flashing, are becoming increasingly common, and present further challenges for law enforcement. But the force is confident in its ability to rise to the challenge. White tells me: “We work tirelessly to put behaviour orders against the individuals we find for these things. We seize vast amounts of equipment… and when we catch them, we really do everything we can to prevent any further offending.” Both the officers and White say that the BTP was instrumental in apprehending and arresting a man last August who had been upskirting a woman at Bank station.

During the couple of hours on patrol we don’t apprehend anyone, but it was clear how the system works. The officers look just like anyone, four strangers waiting for a train – but they’re eagle-eyed and attentive. Though the exact number of officers operating on any given day is an operational secret, for many members of the public it’s an encouraging thought that there could be someone on your train looking out for your safety. As White explains, guaranteeing women and girls’ safety on public transport cannot happen overnight, but the absolute priority of the BTP is “making the environment hostile for offenders”, so that everybody has the right to travel safely across the network.

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