Last Thursday, March 8, 2018, dozens gathered in Jacksonville’s Riverside church to listen to and discuss the findings of two Times-Union investigative journalists—Benjamin Conarck and Topher Sanders—who, in a searing article published last fall titled “Walking while Black,” exposed wide ranging and systematic abuses by the Duvall County Police Department. The police department, the journalists attested, has over the past four years used a litany of draconian pedestrian rules to unjustly and arbitrarily “shake down” anyone they suspected of having committed a crime. The majority of people targeted for ticketing, the journalists found, were overwhelmingly poor and black.
Within the squat brick building- where over a hundred people coalesced that night- the church had an unmistakably theological smell to it, a pure, funereal and enveloping aroma of deeply vacuumed carpets, polished wood benches, and freshly printed copies of the Bible. Before the gathering crowd, a gay pride flag lay draped loosely over the pulpit. The echo of the crowd carried remarkably clearly against the pale wood walls of the building, and thus the sound of the Preacher commencing an opening prayer easily quieted the chatter:
“We ask God that you will guide us in ways to help us further overcome the racism and oppression that exists in our city,” she said through the scratchy white noise of the microphone.
The journalists sat on a panel that included civil rights lawyers, community organizers, and people who’d personally experienced altercations with the police department. (An invitation to the discussion was sent out to both the Sherriff and the Mayor. The offer to the Sherriff was met with silence, and the Mayor declined due to a “conflict of interest.”)
Speaking with a calm demeanor and almost surgically sterilized refrain- as if purging from their findings all the anger their findings provoked- the two journalists opened the discussion by dissecting the bare-boned data analysis they’d dug up as a part of their investigations, revealing what they concluded was a systemic pattern of racially-charged pedestrian ticketing in Duvall county.
“Out of 650 tickets (given over the four-year period they covered),” one said, “more than half didn’t comply with state law.”
They further explained that, of the 23,000 pedestrian violation tickets issued over the past four years, 55 percent went towards African Americans, despite the fact that they constitute only 31 percent of the areas population.
Conarck and Sanders theorized that the Jacksonville area police had taken to a “broken windows” strategy of policing. According to this law enforcement approach, the police actively seek out seemingly insignificant violations of the law- hence the name “broken windows”- to shake down people suspected of criminal activity and thus “drive down crime.”
“The philosophy there,” Conarck said, “is that if you aggressively enforce minor statutes, it’s a way to drive down crime. This goes back to what we saw in Ferguson, where black folks were getting ticketed for having their weeds too high in their yards. The idea is that if you increase- some police will call it ‘enforcing social order’- on people, it’s a way to drive down crime.”
Sanders related the episode in which a 13-year old black girl was apprehended for “failing to use the crosswalk” one afternoon while walking home from school. The detective arrested the girl for resisting when she walked away from the officer, taking her downtown despite the fact that her mother had offered over the phone to merely pay the fine.
“Six hours later, her mom had to pick her up from a Juvenile facility,” he said.
In one case, a black Dominican woman was ticketed for walking off of a sidewalk that’d been rendered nonexistent by flooding from recent rains.
“The officer driving by yelled at her to get back on the sidewalk. She yelled back: ‘what sidewalk?’”
The lady was ascribed a $20 ticket for the minor, seemingly stupid infraction. But while it may seem like a merely non-existent dent into the funds of an upper-middle class citizen, Conarck pointed out, such tickets were costly for people who lived on the poorer fringes of Jacksonville.
“It’s important understand that when you target the most marginalized people in the city- the poorest people in the city- a $65 ticket is a lot more than $65 for you and I. So, when you’re facing eviction and don’t have a job, $65 means a lot.”
The journalists contested that the reason people were forced to break pedestrian violations in poor black neighborhoods was a lack of proper infrastructure. This, they proposed, could be understood as one piece of a broader pattern of segregated underdevelopment when juxtaposed against the properly maintained, far safer pedestrian infrastructure present throughout rich white neighborhoods, such as San Marcos, where the mayor lives.
“Next time you’re driving through San Marco, pay attention to how much pedestrian infrastructure is there, and compare that to that which you see back in Arlington.”
Pedestrian tickets could ultimately become devastating for the poor people who received them, the journalists said, as their inability to pay the menial tickets- due to either lack of money or time- could, and often did, compound into a loss of their driver’s license.
“We contacted a few pedestrian safety experts, and they all concluded that writing these tickets does almost nothing to improve safety. The only thing that’s going to save pedestrians (from being run over) is infrastructure… When (you’re living in one of these poor neighborhoods) and you have to walk a mile, a mile and a half to get to one of these crosswalks, you’re not going to do it.”
Devonte Shipman, a 21-year-old landscaper, related to the crowd amassed in the church how he and a friend- both black- were aggressively apprehended by an officer for a menial pedestrian walking infraction. What made Shipman’s experience unique was that it was crystallized on a video he took as it was happening, which subsequently went viral on social media. According to him, the officer singled them out because they were young, fit African Americans and thus suspected them of having drugs.
“He was hoping we’d have something on us, so he could take us to jail,” he said. Meanwhile, as the officer challenged the two young men for not having their driver’s licenses while walking, another man blatantly walked across the street hardly a few feet from them, an act which didn’t draw the attention of the seemingly aggrieved officer.
Ben Frasier, the leader of Jacksonville’s “Northside Coalition,” a local social justice group, accused the Duvall County Police Department of what he called “rank racism,” for their dispensations of the pedestrian tickets, which many attendees that night perceived as being fraudulent altogether.
“How can anybody say that they’re sworn to serve and protect you if you can’t trust them?” Invoking Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he said that the question of whether Jacksonville could shed its racial burdens came down to that play’s famous line: To Be, or Not to Be.
As a discussion opened following the initial statements of the journalists and their fellow panelists, many community members corroborated with the idea, first proposed by Shipman and a civil rights lawyer seating beside him, of a police accountability committee.
“What’s the difference between this policy (of policing) in Jacksonville and Stop-and-Frisk in New York?” one attendee asked.
Despite the hope of overcoming the problems of what they see as racially charged ticketing practices, many seemed hardened by the fact that it would be an uphill battle to do so.
“Jacksonville is still wracked by ‘Good ol’ boy’ politics,” Frasier said in a later speech. “It didn’t do good for black people back then, and it doesn’t work now.”
Christina Kittle, a black activist who a little over a year ago was beaten by police while protesting, in an unrelated instant, was slightly more acerbic about the challenge people faced in rectifying the racially skewed ticketing system, and judging the perhaps unjust actions of some police officers:
“I would have to see hell freeze over before a cop goes before a trial in Jacksonville. Let alone for all those fraudulent tickets.”