One Officer, Scores of Tickets and a Familiar Racial Disparity
(ProPublica) by It was just before 9 a.m. one day last July, and Noemi Martinez was on her way from one job interview to the next, running to catch a bus on Atlantic Boulevard in Jacksonville, Fla. Sprinklers from a nearby nursery were showering water onto the broken sidewalk in front of her, so Martinez walked out into the shoulder of Lee Road and pressed on.
Things were fairly urgent for Martinez, 52. An eviction notice had been pasted on her apartment door on Jacksonville’s West Side. A job was vital, and she’d just interviewed for work as a bus driver. Now, she was off to interview for a position as a customer service representative at Florida Blue, the health insurance giant.
Just then, Officer C.J. Brown of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office cruised by on his motorcycle. Martinez’s luck could hardly have been worse.
Brown wrote more pedestrian tickets than any other member of the sheriff’s force over the last five years. And so at 8:58 a.m. on July 19, 2017, he issued a $62.50 citation to Martinez: “Pedestrian failed to use sidewalk. Walking in roadway where sidewalks provided.”
“I’ve never been stopped for anything and you’re going to stop me for walking, when I was doing everything right,” Martinez recalled saying to Brown. “He stopped me as if I was a criminal.”
ProPublica and the Times-Union examined more than 2,200 pedestrian tickets issued to people in Jacksonville from 2012 to 2017, and found that 55 percent of them were issued to blacks despite the fact that the city’s population is just 29 percent African American. The sheriff’s office says the tickets are issued in an effort to limit pedestrian fatalities and combat crime.
Brown has fully embraced the ticket enforcement effort. Records show Brown issued 198 pedestrian tickets over five years, four times the total of the next most prolific officer. Slightly more than 60 percent of his tickets went to blacks, meaning one of every 10 blacks to receive a pedestrian ticket in Jacksonville from 2012 to 2017 was cited by Brown.
Top officials with the sheriff’s office said they had no issue with Brown’s performance, or whom he ticketed. The sheriff’s office said Brown wrote a large volume of tickets because he’d been assigned to special enforcement shifts as part of a state-funded effort to make Jacksonville safer for pedestrians.
However, the Times-Union and ProPublica discovered Brown’s work on those shifts could not have accounted for his number of tickets. Those special enforcement shifts were aimed at issuing warnings, not tickets. Officers working those shifts actually wrote modest numbers of tickets.
Presented with the findings, the sheriff’s office amended its explanation for Brown’s productivity, saying Brown was simply a traffic officer who was “good at his job.”
Brown would not agree to an interview.
Brown is one of 19 “motor officers” on the Jacksonville sheriff’s force. They operate on motorcycle and primarily perform traffic-related duties, such as traffic enforcement, traffic direction, and traffic crash investigations. There are also 29 other officers throughout the department that perform some similar traffic-related functions.
Brown joined the sheriff’s force in 1995, and worked first as a patrol officer in downtown Jacksonville. Even as a patrol officer, he received praise for his traffic enforcement. His personnel file indicates he joined the motorcycle traffic unit around 2005, and again he won praise from his superiors.
“He has shown advanced skills in traffic control, traffic enforcement, motorist safety and motorcycle operation,” reads one performance evaluation. “Officer Brown has shown the ability to determine the correct Traffic Statute or Criminal Statute to enforce an offense properly,” the evaluation continued.
“Officer Brown makes safety a primary focus. Officer Brown wears safety glasses, reflective jacket, bullet proof body armor, motorcycle boots, gloves and attends monthly motorcycle training classes. Officer Brown participates in numerous Police Motorcycle Rodeo, which have exercises stressing safe operation of the motorcycle. Officer Brown places with awards each rodeo.”
Brown has also been commended for his “commitment to the Broken Windows theory of policing.” The approach emphasizes enforcement of low-level “quality of life” ordinances as a way to limit public disorder and, as a consequence, deter the kinds of more serious crimes that can flourish in neglected communities.
Over the years, the execution of this philosophy of policing has come under considerable fire. Critics say the police sometimes have cracked down too hard on minor crimes in distressed neighborhoods, generating ill will and driving some poor residents into a cycle of debt and needless incarceration.
Brown’s personnel file suggests his approach has not always played well with residents. The brief summaries in the file include nine reports of citizen complaints — “improper action,” in one case, “traffic violation” in another, “unbecoming conduct” in another. The documents underlying the complaints were not available because they are purged after one year. The sheriff’s office declined to open an internal affairs investigation in all but two cases. In those two cases, the allegations were not sustained.
The Times-Union and ProPublica asked the sheriff’s office for comment on Brown’s record of complaints, but got no response.
The 18 other motor officers accounted for a combined 144 pedestrian tickets, well short of Brown’s total. The officers who wrote the second-most and third-most tickets gave out 50 and 39, respectively. They, too, issued them disproportionately to blacks (60 percent and 74 percent, respectively.)
A number of experts said the ProPublica/Times-Union analysis of pedestrian tickets in Jacksonville raised worries about selective enforcement, and noted that the cost of the tickets can hit poor residents especially hard. Sheriff Mike Williams has said there is no targeting of black residents, and that he and his office could not comment further until they had more fully reviewed the ProPublica/Times-Union findings.
Brown issued 121 of his 198 tickets to blacks. Nearly 80 percent of those went to black males. The violations included crossing against a red light, walking “upon a limited access facility” and, of course, walking in roadway where sidewalks are provided, the citation he issued Noemi Martinez, who was listed on the ticket as black, but who describes herself as black and Dominican.
But Brown’s most frequently given ticket was for failing to cross the street in a crosswalk. The ProPublica/Times-Union analysis showed that more than half of all such tickets given in Jacksonville are given in error. The mistakes appear to result from sheriff’s officers’ confusion about how to interpret the statute. Williams told ProPublica and the Times-Union he had asked the State Attorney’s Office to look at the department’s enforcement of the statute for guidance.
Brown wrote 101 tickets for failing to cross in a crosswalk, and our analysis shows 50 of them were issued in error. Thirty of those went to blacks.
Martinez, the recipient of ticket #A8MO4TE, has struggled to find housing and job stability in recent years. By the time she got her apartment in the West Side, she had already been through all three of Jacksonville’s homeless shelters. The one-bedroom apartment was nearly without furniture when a reporter visited to interview Martinez. She had only a bed and two chairs, one of which she used as a nightstand.
The $62.50 ticket written by Brown, then, was no small thing. Any penalties she might accrue on her driver’s license could damage her chances at something like the bus driver’s job she had interviewed for that morning last July.
ProPublica and the Times-Union discussed Martinez’s ticket with Undersheriff Patrick Ivey, the sheriff’s office’s second in command. Ivey subsequently spoke with Martinez and opened an internal affairs investigation into Brown’s handling of the incident.
Martinez had multiple interviews with police, after which Ivey told her the office supported Brown’s actions. The investigators concluded she had failed to heed Brown’s instructions to move to the sidewalk on the other side of the road.
Martinez conceded she was told to get on the sidewalk by Brown, but she thought he was talking about the flooded one she was trying to avoid.
“What sidewalk?” she remembers asking Brown in exasperation. Martinez said she never felt unsafe, and wasn’t straying into traffic.
“I was just trying to walk from point A to point B,” she said.
Ivey acknowledged the discretionary nature of the whole episode. He said that Brown would not have ticketed Martinez if she had heeded his instruction to get on a sidewalk, rather than responding with a question.
Martinez is headed to court over the ticket. She is being represented pro bono by defense attorney Whitney Lonker.
As she was when she first met Martinez, Lonker remains dumbstruck by the effort to ticket poor people for pedestrian violations.
Lonker, who is white, said her own encounter over a jaywalking infraction went a lot differently, something she chalked up to her race and seeming greater affluence.
Lonker said she was crossing the street outside the Duval County Courthouse when a Jacksonville sheriff’s officer notified her she technically committed an infraction by not using the crosswalk.
It was a flirty exchange, Lonker said.
“I was crossing the street, and he laughed and looked at me and said, ‘I could write you a jaywalking ticket,’ and I laughed and said, ‘I know, right!’”
There was no ticket.
The sheriff’s office did not respond to a request for comment on Lonker’s account.