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‘Walking While Black’ Wins Al Nakkula Award for Police Reporting

A collaboration with the Florida Times Union, the project showed that Jacksonville police use pedestrian tickets in a racially disproportionate way.

A team of journalists from ProPublica and the Florida Times Union won the Al Nakkula Award for Police Reporting. ProPublica’s Topher Sanders, Lucas Waldron, Ranjani Chakraborty and Kate Rabinowitz and the Florida Times Union’s Ben Conarck were honored for their joint project “Walking While Black,” which showed that police use pedestrian tickets in a racially disproportionate way in Jacksonville, Fla.

The story was conceived after a viral video last summer showed a young African-American man in Jacksonville being ticketed and threatened with arrest for jaywalking, as well as failing to carry an ID card. Seeing potential for a larger story, the two newsrooms teamed up for a project that confirmed a systemic problem.

Pedestrians can be ticketed for 28 different infractions in Jacksonville, including failing to cross a street at a right angle and not walking on the left side of a road when there are no sidewalks. Sanders and Conarck found that black residents were overrepresented in every category, receiving 55 percent of all pedestrian tickets in Jacksonville while accounting for only 29 percent of the population. They also staked out downtown locations to witness dozens of uniformed officers violating the same pedestrian laws for which their agency issued citations.

“This was an original, ingenious partnership between a national nonprofit journalism outlet and a local newspaper to illuminate an easily overlooked form of enforcement—jaywalking tickets—and, with deep data and shoe-leather reporting, show how something most consider a minor infraction has become an egregious form of racial targeting, and represents misguided police work and an ineffective way to spend public money,” said competition judges.

The investigation prompted the sheriff to seek guidance from the local state attorney on whether his officers were properly interpreting the statutes, and he ordered officers to cease writing erroneous tickets for pedestrians who did not have ID on them. The sheriff’s office also initiated bias training for officers who work in Jacksonville’s predominantly black communities, and state transit experts said the articles armed them with additional evidence for rewriting Florida’s pedestrian statutes.

Another ProPublica project, Thousands of Criminal Cases in New York Relied on Disputed DNA Testing Techniques by Lauren Kirchner, was one of two finalists for the Nakkula Award. The story focused on New York City’s proprietary DNA software (known as the Forensic Statistical Tool, or FST) that has been used to analyze difficult DNA samples from crime scenes in the city and across the nation. Some scientists and defense lawyers say FST may be inaccurate, potentially putting innocent people in prison — but the medical examiner’s office had long kept its source code secret. Following the investigation, a federal judge unsealed the code, allowing ProPublica to publish it online, and the New York City Council passed a bill to establish a task force to study how city agencies use algorithms in decisions that affect New Yorkers’ lives.

Co-sponsored by the University of Colorado College of Media, Communication and Information and the Denver Press Club, the Al Nakkula Award recognizes a reporter, or team, for outstanding accomplishment in police reporting. Learn more about the award here.

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