The video went viral last summer — a young African-American man in Jacksonville, Florida, being ticketed and threatened with arrest for jaywalking. It was painful to watch — the angry cop, the disbelieving young man, in an escalating encounter over a completely discretionary pedestrian ticket.
Ben Conarck of the Florida Times-Union and Topher Sanders of ProPublica watched the video and saw something else: the potential for a larger story about police use of pedestrian tickets and such enforcement’s impact on the lives of often poor men, women and children.
“Walking While Black,” a meticulously researched, sneakily powerful reporting project, showed the enforcement to be racially disproportionate and possessed of lasting consequences. Using hard-won data from a variety of local and state agencies, Conarck and Sanders, both veterans of reporting in Jacksonville, showed the disparities across every category of pedestrian ticket in Duval County. They then found those ticketed, and chronicled the impact — on their driver’s licenses, on their credit ratings, on their day-to-day ability to work and raise families in a city notorious for its lack of adequate pedestrian infrastructure.
Moreover, the reporters got the police to admit they used the issuing of tickets as a strategy for crime fighting — the pedestrian violations giving officers probable cause to stop and question those suspected of some kind of criminal activity. How they determined who was “suspicious” was anyone’s guess, and, of course, grist for resentment for those being routinely ticketed.
The reaction was immediate and intense. Local civil rights leaders called for an end to the writing of pedestrian tickets by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. Local lawmakers drafted legislation to limit the damage done by unequal enforcement by police. The sheriff himself sought guidance from the local state attorney on whether his officers were properly interpreting the applicable statutes. And he ordered his officers to cease writing erroneous tickets for pedestrians who did not have ID on them. An entire city council meeting was devoted to residents expressing outrage about the ticketing.
A video made of Conarck and Sanders, done in collaboration with Vox, garnered 2.2 million views on Facebook and another 1.2 million on YouTube.
The package also included an online quiz, as well as maps and graphics that helped the reporters debunk one of the central defenses asserted by the police: that the tickets were issued to prevent pedestrian deaths. There was, according to the data analysis, no significant connection between where the deaths in Jacksonville were happening and where the police were issuing tickets.
The findings emerged from a grinding, painstaking reporting effort. Conarck and Sanders had to input more than 1,500 addresses by hand into a database in order to do the location analysis to determine bad tickets. They staked out downtown locations to witness dozens of uniformed officers violating the same laws for which their agency was issuing citations. And they employed multiple databases from different agencies to determine exactly how many pedestrians had lost their driving privileges due to jaywalking tickets.