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Jacksonville Sheriff Criticizes Our Reporting. We Respond.

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams issued a press release Friday alleging inaccuracies in our latest story on pedestrian tickets. Read our full response.

This response was co-published with the Florida Times-Union.

ProPublica and the Florida Times-Union have spent several months reporting on the issuing of pedestrian tickets in Jacksonville and in other parts of Florida. The reporting has shown that disproportionate numbers of the tickets in Jacksonville and elsewhere have gone to blacks, and that the seemingly minor infractions — jaywalking, walking on the side of the road — can have significant repercussions for people unable or unwilling to pay the resulting fines. The reporting has also included the finding that hundreds of the tickets given for a particular statute dealing with crosswalks were given in error.

Sheriff Mike Williams answers questions in the sheriff’s office during a meeting with Topher Sanders of ProPublica and Ben Conarck from the Florida Times-Union on Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. (Bob Mack/Florida Times-Union)

On Jan. 11, 2018, ProPublica and the Times-Union reported that the Jacksonville State Attorney’s Office had issued a bulletin to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office offering guidance for the proper interpretation and enforcement of the state’s pedestrian statutes. The article reported that the bulletin supported the interpretation of the crosswalk statute that had formed the basis of the findings regarding the erroneous crosswalk tickets. The article reported that the Jacksonville City Council president, the local public defender, and half a dozen other local legislators were now calling for the suspension of all pedestrian ticket writing.

On Friday, Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams issued a press release claiming the article was inaccurate. ProPublica and the Times-Union stand by the reporting, and have responded to each of Williams’ claims of inaccuracy, which we set out in full below.

1. Inaccuracy: The bulletin factually is not a “state attorney’s office bulletin.” It is a bulletin issued by the Sheriff to his officers.

The bulletin distributed to the sheriff’s officers is signed by Andrew Kantor, assistant state attorney. We spoke directly with the State Attorney’s Office Thursday night. The office’s spokesperson clarified for us that the bulletin was the work of the state attorney’s office and done in response to the sheriff’s request for guidance.

2. Inaccuracy: The legal position drafted by the police legal advisor specifically did not include a review of past citations issued; instead it cut-and-pasted the precise legal requirements of the Florida statutes.

We did not say the review was of past citations. Indeed, the article says specifically that the review did not involve looking at the tickets identified by the Times-Union and ProPublica as problematic.

3. Inaccuracy: The writing by the Times-Union implies that an analysis of past citations was performed. This is factually incorrect.

See above.

4. Clarification: The reporters, Ben Conarck, Mary Kelli Palka (TU) and Topher Sanders (ProPublica) were specifically told that the document was not issued by the State Attorney but rather was a legal framework requested by the Sheriff. The framing of this document as a “review” is intentionally misleading.

The sheriff’s own release of Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, calls what he asked for a “review.”

5. Inaccuracy: While Andrew Kantor is an Assistant State Attorney, he serves as the full-time legal advisor to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. The Times-Union/ProPublica wording suggests that the State Attorney’s office has performed a review of past citations, which assertion is factually incorrect.

Again, Andrew Kantor is an assistant state attorney. He signed the bulletin that went to the sheriff’s officers. The state attorney’s office said the signed bulletin was the work of that office and done in response to the sheriff’s request for guidance/review. The article, once again, does not say the review was of past citations.

6. Inaccuracy: Assistant State Attorney did not issue a bulletin. The Sheriff issued a bulletin including Attorney Kantor’s exposition of Florida Statutes.

The bulletin was signed and dated by Andrew Kantor, assistant state attorney, and designed to give officers guidance for writing pedestrian tickets.

7. Clarification: Prior to publication, Ben Conarck (TU), Mary Kelli Palka (TU) and Topher Sanders (ProPublica) were specifically advised of the Sheriff’s request for such a legal review to be performed.

Once more, the article stated just this. It should be noted the sheriff again says he asked for a review.

8. Inaccuracy: The Times-Union and ProPublica continue to assume that citations were issued in error without any finding by any competent authority to that effect.

The Times-Union and ProPublica researched the crosswalk statute. We had multiple conversations with local experts about its proper interpretation and enforcement. We then checked the circumstances of each crosswalk ticket and determined those circumstances did not meet the terms of the statute and that tickets issued there were thus given in error. We stand by that analysis.

9. Clarification: In a telephone conversation with the Sheriff, the Council President said that she had been contacted by the reporters who told her that an “analysis” by the State Attorney showed that pedestrian citations were issued in error.

Ben Conarck of the Times-Union spoke with the council president, Anna Brosche. He did not tell her an analysis by the state attorney showed citations were issued in error. He informed her that the state attorney’s office review confirmed our reading of the statute as only being applicable in certain areas. He said that, as a result of that review and community concerns, Public Defender Charlie Cofer had decided to support a temporary pause on issuing pedestrian tickets until issues of legality and racial disparities were addressed. He asked the council president if she shared that view. Her response was that she did. In an interview Friday night, the council president said she was in the car at the time of the Thursday interview and cannot recall precisely what was said to her. She said her takeaway was that the state attorney had concluded that crosswalk tickets had been given in error. Brosche said the sheriff had assured her his office was conducting its own internal review of the crosswalk tickets, and she said as a result she no longer thinks a suspension of pedestrian tickets is called for.

10. Inaccuracy: Again, there was no “analysis” of citations by the State Attorney. There was a review of Florida Statutes by the police legal advisor at the Sheriff’s request.

See above.   

11. Inaccuracy: Again, the Times-Union and ProPublica continue to assume that citations were issued in error without any finding by any competent authority to that effect.

See above.

12. Inaccuracy: There is no objective evidence that “people were being punished for failing to avail themselves of safety features that weren’t easily accessible.” The Florida Times-Union/ProPublica reporting has offered not one instance in which that is the case.

The plain purpose of the statute in question is to compel pedestrians to use the safer setting for crossing the street afforded by formal crosswalks and traffic lights. Our reporting shows that the sheriff’s officers have written hundreds of tickets to people for failing to do that when such safer alternatives are not reasonably available.

13. Inaccuracy: The last sentence above specifically contradicts the reporters’ assertions that (a) the State Attorney performed an analysis and (b) that such analysis had confirmed the reporters’ positions.

The Times-Union and ProPublica reported that people had been ticketed for failing to cross at signals when signals were not readily available and where there were other intersections at which they could cross.  The state attorney’s bulletin makes clear that in those circumstances tickets should not be issued.

14. Clarification: Prior to publication, Ben Conarck (TU), Mary Kelli Palka (TU) and Topher Sanders (ProPublica) were specifically advised of the Sheriff’s request for such a legal review to be performed.

See above.

15. Clarification: The explanation by the police legal advisor is not a binding legal opinion, it is a guidance document requested by the Sheriff for his officers.

The article accurately reflected the sheriff’s office’s view on this.

16. Clarification: Multiple telephone and in-person conversations have revealed the Council members had been contacted by the reporters who alleged that an “analysis” by the State Attorney showed that pedestrian citations were issued in error. That assertion is factually incorrect.

See above.

17. Query: Coverage by the Florida Times-Union/ProPublica seems to be urging a moratorium on the issuance of pedestrian citations. The use of the term “suspending” suggests that the suspension would be temporary, but temporary until ... when?

 No inaccuracy is asserted here.

18. Clarification: Ms. Dekine failed to pay her citation and chose not to take her position to court. Her failure to respond was the cause of the suspension of her driver’s license. Suspension of her driver’s license is the outcome prescribed under the Florida Statutes.

The article says exactly this.

19. The repetition of the word “erroneous” is problematic journalistically. There is no competent authority who has found the issuance of any citation to be “erroneous.”

See above.

20. Clarification: There is no explanation of the reporters’ methodology in assessing these statistics with other jurisdictions or with Duval County.

There is no claim of factual inaccuracy to respond to. Furthermore, reporters provided the sheriff’s office multiple letters detailing their findings and the methodology used in their analysis. The reporters’ methodology was also published in a separate story.

21. Inaccuracy: There has been no factual basis established that the pedestrian citations — not all of which are “crosswalk tickets” — has been “flawed.” The continuing assertions of such by two reporters does not make it so.

See above.

22. Clarification: There is no factual predicate in the article as to Mr. Hattaway’s credentials in assessing the actions of law enforcement. Moreover, Mr. Hattaway has no particular standing in understanding urban law enforcement in Duval County.

No inaccuracy is alleged.

23. Inaccuracy: The use of the word “confusion” — apparently inserted by the reporters — is biased and misleading. The Sheriff requested a legal memorandum to ensure that there was clarity for officers in issuing pedestrian citations. Apparently the desire to ensure clarity is being characterized as “confusion” by the reporters.

The confusion referred to involves officers and legislators and others statewide. Many people have attested to it.

24. Inaccuracy: The Times-Union/ProPublica analysis continues to isolate one demographic element — race — while ignoring age, gender, economic status, education level, or national origin.

There is no claim of factual inaccuracy.

25. Clarification: Citations are issued based on behavior, not on demographics.

The sheriff’s position on this question is accurately reflected in the article.

26. Inaccuracy: On average, 80,000 to 90,000 citations are issued by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. Of those, approximately 400 of these annually are issued for pedestrian violations. The argument that the Times-Union/ProPublica makes actually concerns less than one-half of one percent of all citations issued.

The reporting done by the Times-Union and ProPublica has involved exclusively pedestrian tickets.

27. Inaccuracy: The Times-Union/ProPublica coverage continues to assume that there are “bad tickets” while there is no factual basis shown that anyone cited was not — at the time of the citation — violating the law.

See above.

28. Inaccuracy: The State Attorney has not performed a review. The police legal advisor has provided a legal framework — requested by the Sheriff — to guide officers in their sworn duty to enforce Florida Statutes.

The sheriff himself says he asked for a review and received one. The critical idea that the state attorney’s office was asked to help make sure the state’s pedestrian statutes were being properly enforced is accurately captured in this article and others before it.

29. Inaccuracy: The Sheriff and his leadership team have had multiple, in-depth conversations with the reporters from the Florida Times-Union and ProPublica. To state that he would not “discuss the ... findings in greater detail” is factually incorrect and misleading to readers.

The sheriff’s office has responded in general terms to our findings — saying that the tickets were given properly and not based on race — and has also discussed some of its philosophies in enforcing the statutes. Those viewpoints have been amply reflected in our reporting. But the sheriff’s office has said again and again it would not discuss specific tickets and our specific findings until his office had a chance to conduct its own assessments.

 30. Clarification: Prior to publication, Ben Conarck (TU), Mary Kelli Palka (TU) and Topher Sanders (ProPublica) were specifically advised of the Sheriff’s request for such a legal review to be performed.

See above.         

31. Grammatical Error: “analysis” doesn’t “spark” “upset.”

We respectfully disagree.

32. Facts: (a) Jacksonville has consistently led the state in pedestrian fatalities, (b) statistically, one pedestrian is involved in a crash every day in Jacksonville, and (c) one in four traffic deaths in Jacksonville involve a pedestrian.

There is no claim of factual inaccuracy. We have regularly reported on the dangerous circumstances faced by Jacksonville pedestrians.

 33. Inaccuracy: The Times-Union/ProPublica continues erroneously to assert that a “legal review” has taken place. To reiterate, the Sheriff asked the police legal advisor for a legal framework that officers could follow. That is all that has occurred.

See above.

34. Clarification: Prior to publication, Ben Conarck (TU), Mary Kelli Palka (TU) and Topher Sanders (ProPublica) were specifically advised of the Sheriff’s request for such a legal review to be performed.

Here, the sheriff himself says he asked for a legal review, something he accuses us of having falsely reported.

35. Clarification: Inaccurate and biased coverage by The Florida Times-Union and ProPublica has created a false impression and does a disservice to readers and citizens.

We stand by our accurate and important reporting. That reporting has been welcome in many corners of Jacksonville and provoked calls for reform and improvement.

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