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Jacksonville Sheriff Uses Misleading Data to Defend Pedestrian Ticketing

Sheriff Mike Williams has sought to counter the findings of racial disparities in pedestrian ticketing with his own set of numbers. They don’t add up.

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams in recent months has repeatedly defended his department’s enforcement of pedestrian violations. Claims of a racial disparity have been overstated, he has argued. There is no policy targeting people of color, he has insisted. He’s made his case before the City Council. Most recently, Williams had a report supporting his claims hand-delivered to a local NAACP official.

When making his case, Williams has relied on what he has said is a true accounting of pedestrian ticket data for recent years. That data, he claims, shows that 45 percent of tickets went to blacks. That figure, while greater than the city’s black population, is substantially less than the number reported by the Times-Union and ProPublica in a series of articles late last year. The Times-Union and ProPublica reported that 55 percent of the tickets over the prior five years had been issued to blacks.

This week ProPublica and the Times-Union obtained the sheriff’s data, and the numbers are misleading.

Williams, it turns out, has included in his count tickets written for “soliciting,” which typically means panhandling. It is a criminal charge for which people are routinely arrested. It is not covered by one of the more than two dozen civil statutes under which people are ticketed for pedestrian violations — jaywalking, for instance, or walking on the wrong side of the road.

The vast majority of the roughly 800 soliciting charges were issued to whites, often people seeking money or food at the entrances to freeways and other locations. It is unclear why so many went to white people, but the sheriff’s decision to include them in his presentations on pedestrian ticketing accounts for his claim that only 45 percent of all pedestrian tickets in recent years were issued to blacks.

Ken Stokes, chairman of the Jacksonville NAACP’s Legal Redress committee, was hand-delivered the sheriff’s data recently. Stokes said he was told the numbers represented the totality of pedestrian enforcement. The inclusion of the soliciting tickets in the data was not explained to him, Stokes said.

“The main issue is trust,” said Stokes, who called for a halt to the pedestrian ticket writing in the wake of the reporting by the Times-Union and ProPublica.  “The black community doesn’t trust the police department. And when you keep this kind of stuff circulating, that hurts your credibility.”

The Times-Union and ProPublica asked the sheriff’s office about the data he was using in his public presentations. In response, the office issued a three-paragraph statement defending the count and its enforcement actions.

“All of these laws are in place to protect pedestrians,” the statement said. “We do not selectively exclude certain ones from our analysis.”

Last year, the Times-Union and ProPublica documented the often serious implications for people receiving the $65 pedestrian tickets. Credit ratings were damaged when people could not pay. In hundreds of cases, people lost their driver’s licenses when they were unable or unwilling to pay.

And in hundreds more instances, people were given tickets that didn’t comply with state law. Black pedestrians were over-represented in virtually every category of ticket.

Williams and his office have maintained that the tickets are given merely as a public safety matter in a city with notoriously high rates of pedestrian deaths. Yet reporting by the Times-Union and ProPublica showed that there was no strong correlation between where people were being killed and where tickets were being issued. Indeed, whites made up the majority of people killed by vehicles in Jacksonville.

The sheriff’s use of the soliciting violations in his defense of pedestrian ticket enforcement is odd in that his office does not otherwise lump the criminal citations with the pedestrian violations. The office’s pedestrian education brochure, for instance, says the most common infraction committed by citizens was crossing outside the crosswalk. Had the office actually counted soliciting as a pedestrian infraction, it would have easily been the top category.

Those arrested and jailed for soliciting can face fines of $300 or more, as well as the loss of their driver’s license.

The Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation & Empowerment — a nonprofit representing 38 congregations and 30,000 residents — recently met with the sheriff and discussed pedestrian enforcement. The group intends to ask Williams to stop writing bicycle and pedestrian tickets with fines and instead issue verbal or written warnings. Stokes of the NAACP, other civil rights activists, the city’s public defender, and several city council members, have also called for such a halt to the ticketing.

Pastor Phillip Baber of ICARE said the sheriff needs to reconsider the discretion he’s given his officers on pedestrian tickets because the current practice has led to an imbalance in ticketing.

“How can you continue to support allowing them to have the discretion to be able to give tickets, especially when you have data that shows the enforcement of that and the discretion being applied has clearly discriminatory results?” Baber said. “The answer is you can’t, and that’s why we are asking for there to be an end to citations and fines for those violations.”

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund recently sent representatives to Jacksonville to explore the question of possible discrimination in the sheriff’s office’s pedestrian enforcement. The Legal Defense Fund has not seen Williams’ data.

Leslie Scott Jean Bart, an attorney who has been outspoken on the issue of pedestrian ticketing, said that whatever point the sheriff had sought to make, he would have been better served by being explicit about how he had compiled his data.

”Instead they just gave the numbers without any explanation for why they were different,” she said.

Williams could well face some tough questions on pedestrian enforcement on Monday at the annual ICARE Nehemiah Assembly in Jacksonville, in which he is scheduled to participate.

Baber, the pastor, said the data clearly shows concrete racial discrepancies that must be addressed.

“We’re kind of flummoxed by the sheriff’s response to this,” he said. “We are hopeful his response at the Nehemiah Assembly will translate to a desire to want to listen to black folks in this city when they are coming together to tell him, ‘We feel victimized.’”

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Topher Sanders

Topher Sanders is a reporter at ProPublica covering race, inequality and the justice system.

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