The sheriff has yet to provide compelling evidence to back up his agency’s use of pedestrian citations. And his decision to count criminal panhandling charges in his statistics has raised issues of trust.
Sheriff Mike Williams said Monday that racially disparate pedestrian ticketing by his officers has dropped significantly since January, but he had a hard time finding true believers at a criminal justice reform event.
About 1,400 people at the annual Interfaith Coalition for Action, Reconciliation & Empowerment Nehemiah Assembly heard the sheriff unveil a new statistic: that just 34 percent of pedestrian citations from January through March this year went to blacks.
The sheriff didn’t provide details on how he reached the 34 percent figure or what statutes he included in that analysis. On Friday, the Times-Union and ProPublica reported that Williams was using misleading data to generate another figure — that 45 percent of tickets went to black pedestrians in a six-year span. To get there, the sheriff included a criminal misdemeanor for panhandling that skewed the results.
The alternative numbers surfaced in the wake of reporting by the Times-Union and ProPublica showing that 55 percent of pedestrian citations over a five-year span went to blacks. In addition to repeatedly downplaying and dismissing racial disparities, Sheriff Williams has insisted that the tickets are necessary to increase public safety.
Pastor Phillip Baber, an ICARE co-president, said Williams’ inclusion of the misdemeanor among other citations was confusing.
“They sure do seem like qualitatively different infractions, such that lumping their aggregate data together to do an analysis does seem a bit unusual to me,” he said.
There’s no apparent reason to merge the data together, other than the panhandling misdemeanor being included alongside other pedestrian statutes, or to show less tickets going to black people, Baber added.
On Monday, Williams said it is his agency’s stance today to emphasis discretion and to take infrastructure into account. He said his office has conducted internal training around pedestrian tickets. He didn’t provide details on when this training took place, how it was conducted and what spurred the training. The Times-Union and ProPublica documented cases of people who said they were ticketed for stepping around flooded sidewalks, or crossing the street where they were legally allowed to cross.
In the face of questions from Baber and Pastor James Wiggins, the sheriff could not point to any evidence to support that tickets with fines improve safety. In fact, Times-Union and ProPublica reporting showed fatal pedestrian crashes have risen at nearly an identical rate as ticketing has climbed in the last five years. Planning and traffic safety experts also agree that ticketing doesn’t change pedestrian behavior.
“The sheriff has absolutely no data to suggest that giving fines results in saving lives,” Baber said. “If he had no data to suggest that is the case, and there’s all this other data to suggest completely the opposite, then what is the purpose of doing any kind of jaywalking citations at this point, especially when there can be such a discriminatory end?”
Baber said he had never heard the 34 percent figure until Monday evening, despite having meet with Williams earlier this month. A Sheriff’s Office spokesman said the data was uploaded to the agency’s website that morning. Baber expressed skepticism that the numbers were a genuine picture of enforcement. He said he was waiting for the Times-Union and ProPublica to scrutinize the data.
The Times-Union and ProPublica have requested the details behind Williams’ new 34 percent number.
Williams’ tone and demeanor at the ICARE assembly signaled a departure from recent public appearances in which he took a more defensive stance. At an implicit bias forum last month, Williams said the suggestion that officers were targeting blacks for pedestrian tickets was offensive to the profession of law enforcement.
On Monday evening, speaker after speaker took to the stage to speak to the disparate impacts of policing on black neighborhoods. They bemoaned death and brutality at the hands of law enforcement. They demanded that black people stop being singled out and targeted for minor offenses. And Williams said he agreed with all of them.
“I agree with everything I’ve heard up here today,” Williams said. “We are working to build trust in the community and fairness — all of those are principles we are driving down into the line level every day and have been since the day I took office.”
Ben Frazier, a community organizer who led a protest of Williams’ use of pedestrian tickets outside of the assembly Monday, said the sheriff’s tone may have shifted, but the content of the conversation remains unchanged.
Instead of a frank conversation about potential bias in his agency, Frazier said, the sheriff has come up with figure after figure to make excuses. That exercise has only worsened trust between the sheriff and black residents, he concluded.
″[With] the city’s top cop, there should be no question about credibility, honesty and straightforwardness,” Fraizer said. “I think he stubbed his toe on this one. I think he actually is failing.”
The sheriff received some praise for reducing youth arrests and emphasizing issuing civil citations instead. He said that the citations now account for more than 90 percent of youth contacts.
The organizers of ICARE saved some of their strongest criticism for the issue of the Jacksonville Re-entry Center, which the sheriff had previously championed. At the 2016 assembly, Williams pledged to use $900,000 in state grants to fund the center, which provides housing, job preparation, and other services for formerly incarcerated people returning to society.
Those funds brought the JREC budget up to $1.5 million, but the sheriff had to return over $600,000 of unspent funding to the state, ICARE organizers said.
Katherine Robinson, of the Greater Payne AME, said on stage Monday night that the organization was “deeply disappointed that 400 of our brothers, sisters and neighbors were not going to have access to services that are desperately needed” as a result of the funding shortfalls.
“What makes it worse is that we had such high expectations based off what the sheriff has said two years before,” Robinson said. “When it comes to this, our confidence in the sheriff has been fractured.”
Baber said one of the most encouraging developments from the assembly was State Attorney Melissa Nelson’s openness to establishing a first-of-its-kind open data portal to measure prosecutorial performance. Nelson, however, would not commit to establishing the portal within a year.
“We have to temper that enthusiasm,” Baber said, “because she would not give us a very proximate deadline.”
The strongest comments from a public official on inequities in policing came from Public Defender Charlie Cofer, who stressed that people in low-income areas are routinely subjected to intense enforcement of minor offenses — from jaywalking to loitering. It is a type of enforcement, he said, that more affluent neighborhoods rarely, if ever, experience.
Cofer, a former judge, said that black people who populate these low-income areas have a hard time avoiding the petty variety of enforcement that sweeps up so many in the punitive criminal justice system.
“People who reside in low income communities are not just policed more heavily,” Cofer said. “They are policed differently.”
This story was reported with Topher Sanders of ProPublica