Metro Vancouver transit police are introducing an app to make it easier for passengers to report incidents of sexual intimidation in SkyTrains, buses and stations, the force's top priority this year.
In addition to the app, transit police will be stepping up patrols over the next week as part of a campaign called Project Global Guardian also under way in other cities such as London, Washington and Boston. All are members of a roundtable to which Metro Vancouver transit police have been invited to share best practices.
Now in the final stages of testing, the app created by a San Francisco-area firm will offer a menu of security features, including texting for help and, in a first for the transit police, access reports on "crime hot spots" – summaries of crimes around particular stations. An earlier app built for Victoria police by the same company did not provide as many functions.
"It's a user-friendly way to contact or get information for the transit police," said Constable Kevin Goodmurphy of the transit police during a news conference at the headquarters of TransLink, the regional transit authority. "It can be used in so many ways."
The high-tech plan comes as Canada's only dedicated transit police force is grappling with a wave of incidents, ranging from lewd looks and unwelcome comments to touching and assaults on the system's 134 kilometres of rail, 1,400 buses and 57 stations.
"Combatting sexual offending on the transit system is one of our top priorities in 2014," said Constable Goodmurphy. "We want our passengers to be safe on our transit system."
Metro Vancouver officials said the issue of sexual intimidation ranks ahead of bus-driver safety, managing people with mental-health issues on the system and dealing with special events this year.
Between Jan. 1 and April 7, there have been 49 files related to sexual offences on the transit system – a 23-per-cent increase from the same period last year, said transit police spokeswoman Anne Drennan.
That continues an upward trend. In 2013, there were 132 reported offences – slightly higher than the total in 2012. Ms. Drennan said she had no information for 2014 on how many of these incidents led to criminal charges.
She said the increase may be partly linked to a greater push on transit users to speak up about incidents. "We would like to think our numbers will go up before they go down," she said.
The app has been in the works since last fall, developed by MobilePD, based in Sunnyvale, Calif.
It is expected to be through final testing and ready for use in the next few weeks, said Jamieson Johnson, vice-president of business development of MobilePD.
The transit-policing app was a first for the company after working with about 20 North American police departments since the company began in 2010.
Mr. Johnson said it was a challenge to suit the needs of a transit police force, which has calls coming in from light-rail, buses and stations instead of homes and businesses. "A lot of it was a feeling-out process."
Katie Nordgren, a Simon Fraser University women's studies student who developed a blog on harassment in the transit system with fellow student Alexa Dredge, said the app was a positive step. Ms. Nordgren said it would allow easy texting so passengers could call for help without conspicuously activating alarm systems in a bus or SkyTrain.
"With everybody buried in their phones all the time, it's really easy if someone is creeping on you to just take out your phone."