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Sex Crimes Ride Under the Radar on Public Transit

In 370 million trips, just 95 sex crimes were documented last year.

MUNI bus

Riding a Richmond-bound train last July, a Bay Area Rapid Transit employee noticed a middle-aged man across the aisle looking at him and rubbing the crotch of his jeans. He tried to ignore it by checking his e-mail on his phone, but when he glanced up, the man had exposed himself and was masturbating, according to the police report.

Two days later, the BART employee reported seeing the man again and pointed him out. When confronted by a BART police detective about exposing himself, the man, Ronnie Lim, 50, asked if the detective was referring to the time he “urinated into a Gatorade bottle” on the train, noting that he “always turns to the side when he does it.”

Lim pleaded not guilty to indecent exposure and is awaiting trial in Alameda County Superior Court. His public defender declined to comment.

Bay Area public transit riders, especially women, said in interviews that they often face unwanted sexual advances from strangers in the form of masturbating and groping on buses, on trains and in stations. Rider advocates and others who study such behavior on mass transit say the crimes are vastly underreported and so police statistics understate the problem.

Lim’s case was unusual because these crimes are rarely reported to the police and do not normally result in arrest, sexual assault experts and daily commuters say.

BART, the San Francisco Municipal Railway and Alameda-Contra Costa Transit together had 370 million riders last year on buses, trains and trolleys that cover San Francisco, the East Bay and beyond. The police documented 95 sex crimes on those three public transit systems, including 35 cases of indecent exposure, often masturbation; 25 cases of sexual battery, which includes groping; one rape; and other unwanted lewd behavior. Forty arrests were made.

Those numbers are surprisingly low given the ridership, said Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, associate dean at the University of California, Los Angeles, Luskin School of Public Affairs, who has studied sex crimes on public transit. The actual number of sex crimes on public transit is most likely much higher, she said.

“We know that crimes of a sexual nature are highly underreported,” Loukaitou-Sideris said, “and quite often if there is a certain amount of groping, it is difficult to prove.”

Ellen Thuy Le, a 20-year-old Stanford student, was leading a tour of San Francisco for a group of students from Korea, Taiwan and Japan. While riding on a crowded Muni bus, Le said, she realized someone was groping her from behind.

“I wasn’t quite horrified because these things seem to happen all the time when one is taking public transportation,” Le wrote in an e-mail. “I turned quickly and glared at the offender, who was a hobo (no surprise there). He grinned a toothless smile and looked away.”

Le said she decided not to report the episode to the police because she was not hurt and did not want to make a scene in front of the others.


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