ProPublica reporter Topher Sanders and the Florida Times-Union’s Ben Conarck are the recipients of this year’s Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award for their joint investigation, “Walking While Black.” The story examined Jacksonville, Florida’s enforcement of pedestrian violations, showing sharp racial disparities in who gets stopped and penalized. ProPublica social visuals and graphics producer Lucas Waldron and data fellow Kate Rabinowitz, as well as ProPublica/Vox video fellow Ranjani Chakraborty, also contributed to the project.
Sanders and Conarck looked into the issue after the emergence of viral video showing an African-American man receiving a ticket for jaywalking and not having an ID while crossing a street. The reporters found that these encounters are common in Jacksonville, which has 28 separate statutes governing how people walk in the city — including failing to cross a street at a right angle, and for not walking on the left side of a road when there are no sidewalks.
Their analysis, using data from local and state agencies, also showed that these pedestrian tickets — typically costing $65, but carrying the power to damage one’s credit or suspend a driver’s license if unpaid — were disproportionately issued to black residents, almost all of them in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. In the last five years, African Americans received 55 percent of all pedestrian tickets in Jacksonville, while only accounting for 29 percent of the population. In addition, the reporters staked out downtown locations to witness dozens of uniformed officers violating the same pedestrian laws for which their agency issued citations.
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.
Administered by Columbia Journalism School, the Paul Tobenkin Memorial Award recognizes outstanding achievements in reporting on racial or religious hatred, intolerance or discrimination in the United States. Learn more about the award here.