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How jaywalking has exposed racial bias

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Posted at 3:51 PM, Sep 06, 2022
and last updated 2022-09-06 16:58:01-04

Minorities appear to be disproportionately targeted when jaywalking.

In the state of New York, a 2019 study shows that 90% of jaywalking tickets were issued to Black and Hispanic Americans even though they represent 55% of the population. 

A high-profile case out of a suburb of Kansas City shows how explosive those stops can become. 

On Valentine’s Day 2020, Justin Layton says he was walking home when he was approached by Independence, Missouri police. In the dashcam video, Layton is told he's being detained for jaywalking. The situation escalated, and by the time it was over, Layton was cited for “\interference with police, resisting arrest, and possession of a controlled substance. Layton said he had the medication to treat seizures.

Layton believes he was stopped for walking while Black. He believes that night, he could have died. He also believes, if he had died, his death would have ignited a movement similar to what happened after George Floyd died.

Charles T. Brown doesn’t know Layton. But as the head of an urban planning firm called Equitable Cities, he does know the history of an offense that started a century ago when cars became how most got around. 

“Jaywalking is something that was made up by automobile companies to deflect blame when drivers are hit,” Brown said. “A disproportionate number of the number that are arrested and ticketed as it relates to jaywalking are people of color.” 

The stop of Justin Layton fits the description, proven by the words of the officer who arrested him. 

According to the police report, the Independence officer said he observed a man “dressed in a black hoodie” with “a hood pulled over his head,” the same as “prowlers” who “attempt to cover their faces so to not be identified.” The man was walking on a street that “had seen a recent rise in property crime.” For those reasons, the officer “turned [his] patrol vehicle back around” to follow the man who turned out to be Layton. Shortly after, Layton crossed the street when the signal said don’t. That’s when the officer got out.

“He said, ‘Stop, bro. Stop, bro. Come here, bro.' It’s like, ‘You ain’t my brother,’” Layton said.  “He already made up, in his head, that, ‘I gotta see what this guy’s doing,’ when I’m just walking down the street like anybody else in the world— just a Black man walking down the street.” 

“It has always been happening,” said Brown. “But now that we’re seeing it caught on tape, I think it’s leading more people to look at laws that are on our books that don’t actually improve safety. And jaywalking is one of those.”

In the last two years, that’s led to action. In Nevada, jaywalking is no longer a misdemeanor. In Virginia, it’s still illegal, but it can’t be the sole reason for stopping someone. Neither state has seen pedestrian deaths spike. Kansas City has eliminated jaywalking as a crime, and pedestrian deaths have gone up slightly.

But it’s hardly that simple. Layton believes even if he wasn't stopped for jaywalking, the officer would have found another reason to stop him.

“I have a 100% chance that they would have stopped me," Layton said.