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A Canada Line map is seen on a ticket machine as a Metro Vancouver Transit Police officer stands by at Richmond-Brighouse Station in Richmond, B.C.Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mail

A decision by Metro Vancouver Transit Police to release a detailed description of an alleged sexual assault victim is sparking outrage among some advocates.

The force issued a public plea last week for a young woman to come forward, after a witness reported seeing a man grope her on the Canada Line SkyTrain.

The news release included her ethnicity, estimated age, hair colour, height and what she was wearing at the time – details that some women's groups say should never have been published.

"The police are putting all these identifiers onto a woman who actually has a choice of whether she is going to step forward or not," said Irene Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer, executive director of the Women Against Violence Against Women Rape Crisis Centre.

"Women resist in many different ways. Women want to get on with their lives, if they're going to be mired in a criminal justice system that has a [low] conviction rate."

The witness, Kathy Yu, also posted a photo of the alleged assault – in which the suspect and victim's faces were not visible – on a Facebook page called UBC Confessions, where it has been shared more than 2,000 times.

Transit Police spokeswoman Anne Drennan said the force would never circulate such a photo. But after the Facebook post was published, officers felt it was important to follow up.

"To put out a description is an indicator to both her and perhaps someone who might know who we're talking about to say to her, perhaps she should go and talk to the police," she said.

Yu followed the suspect off the train at Bridgeport Station in Richmond after the alleged incident on Thursday morning. She pointed him out to transit police, who stopped him and asked for identification.

But because the victim had not been identified, the suspect was allowed to go.

Shortly after, Transit Police began investigating whether the incident was connected to a sex assault that occurred two weeks ago on the University of British Columbia campus.

Then, after the force's public plea, a victim of a separate but similar assault on Friday morning on the Canada Line came forward. A link has not been proven but officers continue to investigate, Drennan said.

She said the force cannot satisfy the Crown's requirements for charges without a victim statement. This is not the first time Transit Police have issued a victim description, she added.

"We respect that reporting a sexual offence can be extremely difficult," she said. "We want people to know that you can come to us, we understand what you're going through and we will assist you."

But Hilla Kerner, a spokeswoman for Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter, said police should be encouraging all victims to come forward, rather than singling out individual women.

"On one hand, the idea of encouraging victims to come forward in general is a pretty good idea and we would like to see the police doing it in all cases of sexual assault," she said.

"But when they do single out victims, they need to protect women's right to choose to whom to reveal, what to reveal, how much to reveal. I think they made a mistake of not doing that in this case."

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