A ProPublica investigation uncovered evidence of what could be bias in Jacksonville law enforcement’s handling of pedestrian code violations.
Examining ticket records from the Mississippi city, reporters uncovered an odd dichotomy in the issuance of citations.
Nobody on the force seemed to exemplify the difference better than Officer C.J. Brown of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
Brown, a well-regarded deputy who often patrols by motorbike, is the most prolific writer of pedestrian code violations in the city. While many don’t take the chances of getting a jaywalking ticket seriously, Brown has written dozens over the course of five years.
Between 2007 and 2012, the deputy wrote 198 tickets for pedestrian offenses – a number four times higher than the second-most prolific officer.
More than 60% of Brown’s tickets have gone to black residents of Jacksonville, despite African-Americans accounting for less than a third of the city’s population.
And Brown’s numbers aren’t far off from his colleagues.
In total, 55% of all pedestrian citations issued by law enforcement in Jacksonville have been issued to blacks – some of whom violated ordinances for fairly innocuous reasons.
One woman interviewed by ProPublica, Noemi Martinez, said she was walking to a job interview.
Martinez had just been served an eviction notice and desperately needed to find an employment. After being called in to talk about a bus driver position, the 52-year old woman was hurrying to her appointment.
Along the way, Martinez was faced with an ordinary and very pedestrian predicament – whether to continue along a dilapidated sidewalk lined with sprinklers, or to stay dry and briefly march along the roadside.
Gauging the risk from traffic, Martinez opted to take her chances with the road.
But when Officer Brown passed by, he stopped and asked what she was doing off the sidewalk.
“What sidewalk?” she responded.
Officer Brown wrote her a $62 citation for using the roadway when there was a paved sidewalk nearby.
ProPublica suggests that writing such tickets to the impoverished is simply another way to oppress the already-vulnerable.
And after learning that blacks are disproportionately cited for crossing roadways without using a marked crossing, the publication delved deeper.
ProPublica analyzed the outcome of such citations and discovered that nearly 50% are issued in error.
Of Brown’s 101 failure to use crosswalk citations, 50 were issued in error – of the 50, 30 had been written to African-Americans.
Trying to fight her case in court, Martinez is being represented pro bono by attorney Whitney Lonker.
Lonker, who’s white, says she’s “dumbstruck” by the city’s attempts to ticket poor people for pedestrian violations.
Recounting her own encounter with Jacksonville deputies over a pedestrian offense, Lonker says she was stopped by a cop who said, “I could write you a jaywalking ticket.”
“I laughed and I said, ‘I know, right!’” says Lonker.
She didn’t receive a ticket.