The Walking While Black discussion forum was presented by the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center on February 13th at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. Moderated by Charles Brown, Senior Researcher at the Voorhees Transportation Center, featured speakers included Topher Sanders, reporter at ProPublica, and Ben Conarck of the Florida Times Union. These reporters reviewed tickets given to pedestrians by Jacksonville police over a five-year span and found no relationship between where tickets were being issued and where people were being killed. The discussion was centered around the reporters’ judicious research and the demographic characteristics of those receiving citations in Jacksonville, Florida.
Major findings of the investigative report:
This investigative report has increased the breadth of knowledge on a timely topic surrounding pedestrian safety and equity issues, topics at the forefront of national discourse today in light of the national Black Lives Matter movement, policing reform, and discussions about racial profiling.
The Jacksonville Sherriff’s Office issues hundreds of pedestrian citations a year, drawing on an array of roughly 30 separate statutes governing how people get around on foot in Florida’s most populous city. The sheriff’s office says the enforcement of the full variety of pedestrian statutes is essential to keeping people safe in a city with one of the highest pedestrian fatality rates in the nation. The office also says the tickets are a useful crime-fighting tool, allowing officers to stop suspicious people and question them for contraband including guns and drugs.
A key finding: the number of fatal crashes involving pedestrians did not decrease due to ticketing efforts, but in fact climbed every year from 2012 to 2016, the most recent years for which complete data is available. Pedestrian tickets — typically costing roughly $65 each, but carrying the power to damage one’s credit or suspend a driver’s license if unpaid — were disproportionately issued to blacks compared to whites and other ethnicities, almost all of the tickets being issued in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. In the last five years, blacks received 55 percent of all pedestrian tickets in Jacksonville, while only accounting for 29 percent of the population. Blacks account for a higher percentage of tickets in Duval County than any other large county in Florida.
Looking into fatality statistics, Mr. Sanders and Mr. Conarck looked in to whether or not the ticketed population was representative of the group suffering from pedestrian fatalities. They found 194 pedestrian deaths occurred within the same timeframe as the tickets issued, of which 30% were black, mirroring the population breakdown. However, 59% of tickets were issued to black pedestrians. The people who received the most tickets compared with the people who died were neither proportionate nor representative. To delve deeper, the reporters looked more closely at Duval County. The Duval County population is 29% black and 61% white. 59% of Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office tickets were issued to black people, while 42% were issued to white people. Based on these population demographics and ticket allocations, blacks received twice as many tickets as whites within the same population.
The reporters then aimed to answer the question: “Do more tickets equate to fewer pedestrian deaths?” Citing public safety concerns, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has increased its pedestrian citations by about 40% since 2012. Also since 2012, deadly pedestrian crashes increased by nearly the same amount, 37%. This led Mr. Sanders and Mr. Conarck to conclude that pedestrian behavior has not been changed through punitive measures such as ticketing because the higher number of tickets given in the timeframe assessed did not decrease fatalities. Furthermore, many tickets issued did not comport with state law, meaning tickets were issued citing wrong legal statutes in regards to the infractions the tickets were issued for.
Mr. Sanders and Mr. Conarck then discussed some case studies of police stops they came across throughout the course of their investigative report.
Devante Shipman (age 21) a landscaper, was stopped for crossing the street against a red signal. Devante recorded his encounter with law enforcement on his cell phone. He was threatened with jail time and was told he needed ID to walk down the street even though no such requirement exists. He was also told he was stopped to make sure he didn’t have any drugs or guns. The ticket Devante was issued was a citation normally issued to motorists.
Eboni Dekine (age 32) an Army veteran and entrepreneur, was ticketed for crossing a roadway outside of a crosswalk. Dekine did not pay the ticket and her license was suspended. She asserted that crossing midblock is safer for her. By Dekine’s account, the officer threatened to arrest her for “being disrespectful.”
Brianna Nonord (age 13) a student, was ticketed for crossing the road outside of a crosswalk. She was handcuffed and taken to a juvenile detention center, even after her mother showed up on scene and asked for her daughter to be released. The officer stated that Brianna was resisting arrest. Brianna paid the ticket.
John Fitzgerald Kendrick (age 48) a truck driver, was arrested for a pedestrian violation. The officer repeatedly told him he “wasn’t going to have no job tomorrow” according to Kendrick. Kendrick sued the sheriff’s office and won a $10,000 settlement.
Brelan Shoemo (age 33) a sports merchandiser/ticket broker was ticketed and jailed for a pedestrian violation. Charges against him were later dropped after he hired a lawyer who “filed an Internal Affairs report and offered witnesses but the Sheriff’s Office declined to open an investigation.”
Michael Anderson (age 29) a State worker was ticketed for walking in the roadway. The officer on scene said he was stopping Anderson for ‘looking suspicious.’ He contested the ticket and the officers in question did not show up for the court date. Anderson told the officer on scene “you’re only harassing me because I’m a black male with dreads in this high crime area.”
An officer who wrote an inordinately high number of tickets was then discussed. Officer C.J. Brown of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office wrote four times as many pedestrian tickets as any other officer in a 5-year span. It was found that the tickets he issued could have instead been issued as warnings. Officer Brown issued nearly 80% of his tickets to black males. The sheriff’s office attributed Brown’s voluminous ticket total to his assignment to a special pedestrian enforcement detail. The investigative report debunked this claim when it was discovered that the special detail was aimed at issuing warnings, not tickets.
Noemi Martinez (age 52) stepped around a puddle on a flooded sidewalk and was issued a $62.50 ticket for walking in the roadway. Recently facing eviction, Martinez was traveling between job interviews when she was stopped by Officer Brown. When Mr. Conarck visited Martinez’s residence to interview her for the article, she had no furniture.
When the Q&A began, questions were focused on flushing out the story in their own minds. Questions were then asked about the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, such as the racial makeup of the force and if the tickets were being handed out to generate revenue. Mr. Sanders and Mr. Conarck had some data about the Sheriff’s office and claimed that 7 of the top 10 officers issuing tickets were white, but the tickets were not handed out to generate money. The tickets were low fee infractions and about half of those who received ticket did not pay it. The tickets were more of a policing tactic than a funding source. One audience member asked how people were getting arrested for resisting arrest when they were originally stopped for a minor pedestrian ticket, which in many cases should have simply been a warning. Mr. Sanders explained how the resisting arrest charge is generally added when the person being stopped begins to talk back to the officer or does not comply with a command. Mr. Conarck went into further detail about walking in Florida, where there are 28 statutes on the books dictating how a pedestrian can travel. No one knows all these rules and if you follow any pedestrian long enough they would break one of these laws. When they watched police officers they found jaywalking was incredibly common.
The Q&A continued with people attempting to understand where Mr. Sanders and Mr. Conarck saw the story moving in the future. While they were both beginning to work on other projects, they would still be somewhat involved in this story and willing to help those looking to delve further. In Jacksonville, the community has continued asking questions of the city and the Sheriff’s office. Members of the audience wanted to know how to best tackle this racial profiling that is occurring in the name of pedestrian safety. The answer Mr. Sanders put forth is data. Data needs to be collected by the police force on every stop that is made, race of person stopped, and if tickets were issued. Not many offices collect this type of data, but where this data has been collected practices have changed. Hiring is another important issue to stop these types of police issues. It is hard to figure out the best way to hire the right people, but “who has a gun and badge matters.” When Mr. Sanders and Mr. Conarck were asked if they thought the state would decriminalize walking they said that the issue had been looked at before and a rewrite existed but never had been voted on.
Finally, the speakers asked what advice they had for planners moving forward. They stated that the first thing that needs to be done is to educate those in public office. Not many know the facts and data about reducing traffic fatalities and improving walkability. If you educate the officials the information will spread to their constituents. The other thing that was suggested was to revisit the name “road diets”, as it does not sound like a very tantalizing proposal.
The full audio/visual recording of the forum can be found here: https://ru-stream.rutgers.edu/media/Walking+While+Black/1_bwbnswm1
By Benjamin Peacock and Vishal Ream-Rao