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ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.
The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office will begin bias training for its officers next week in what the office said is an effort to improve relations with the city’s diverse populations.
The training will be conducted by Bethune-Cookman University, a historically black university in Daytona Beach. It will be concentrated on officers and residents of the Sheriff Office’s Zone 5, which makes up Northwest Jacksonville. That patrol zone has among the highest concentrations of black residents in the city. Research released by the University of North Florida last year showed that the patrol zone has the lowest level of trust in law enforcement.
Trainings for officers will focus on improving negative perceptions and attitudes that exist between the community and police. The university’s work with local residents will center on the community’s role in neighborhood safety and how citizens can improve relationships with police. The training will involve 135 Sheriff’s Office personnel and 120 community members and 52 total hours of training. It will cost about $23,500.
Undersheriff Patrick Ivey, the office’s second in command, said on Wednesday that officers have had trainings in diversity and bias before, but that there was a perception in the community that more was needed.
“We had already had some of this, but you know what, more doesn’t hurt, more helps,” Ivey said.
Samir Gupte, an official with the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter, said his organization had been urging Sheriff Mike Williams for some time to consider additional training. He said there needs to be a more frank admission from Sheriff Williams that implicit or unconscious racial biases could be playing a role in issues between minority populations in Jacksonville and the police.
“We haven’t seen or heard anything from leadership on the importance of fair and equitable policing by the officers and the role that unconscious bias could play,” Gupte said. “We’ve asked. We’ve not seen any messaging. We’ve offered to help participate in some of that messaging. Absent that, your team follows what your leaders do and say.”
Asked for a response, the department issued a statement:
“Through the policies to which he affixes his signature, Sheriff Williams directs all members to perform their duties in a fair and equitable manner, making it clear that the disparate treatment of any person based on his/her race is strictly prohibited. All policies are available to any citizen who requests them. Furthermore, our members receive regular training designed to prevent bias-based profiling and to establish positive relationships with all citizens from the diverse community we serve.”
Worries about police bias have surfaced in Jacksonville in a number of cases of allegedly excessive or racially disparate enforcement over the last year. There have been controversial police shootings. Since 2007, 133 people have been shot by Jacksonville police, according to a Times-Union database. One hundred and one of those were black, while blacks make up just 29 percent of the population.
Other incidents included a local black pastor who said he had a gun pointed at him during a traffic stop. A video went viral showing a contentious pedestrian stop between a white officer and a young black Arlington resident. And reporting by the Florida Times-Union and ProPublica has revealed that the city’s black residents receive a disproportionate number of pedestrian tickets, seemingly minor matters that nonetheless can have serious ramifications for residents unable to pay the fines or unwilling to do so because they believe they were ticketed unfairly.
Ivey, however, said the impetus to pay for bias training predated all or most of the incidents. He said the department began contemplating the training as far back as last May, in response to the sheriff’s own reform commission.
“Yes, incidents occur along the way that make you say, ‘Thank goodness we’re moving in the direction of having a better understanding of these,’” Ivey said.
The Sheriff’s Office did not formally announce the training until after the Times-Union and ProPublica requested documents relating to the initiative with Bethune-Cookman.
Leslie Scott Jean-Bart, a Jacksonville lawyer with experience in discrimination cases, and the granddaughter of the first black person and the first woman elected to the city council, said the training is welcome, but should be more extensive and agencywide.
“It will hopefully give them a better insight into the subtleties into race and culture and how the interactions can be escalated,” she said. “And more importantly, maybe it gives them insight on how to de-escalate those encounters.”
Jean-Bart said there are local experts that could help the Sheriff's Office make the training ongoing. It’s especially critical, she said, that senior personnel who oversee the behavior of other officers receive the training too, so that they can better assess complaints coming from the community.
The Interfaith Coalition for Action Reconciliation and Empowerment issued its own statement to the impending training.
“We applaud the Sheriff's efforts to train his officers on racial bias. And we—along with the rest of the city—look forward to seeing hard data from his office demonstrating concrete reductions in bias-based incidents from JSO as a result of trainings like this. Such transparency and accountability are essential to restoring trust between communities of color and the police.”
After Fred Steese spent two decades in a Nevada prison for murder, evidence indicating that he was innocent was found buried in the prosecution’s files. It was proof that Steese, as he’d always claimed, had been hundreds of miles away on the likely day of the murder and couldn’t have been the killer.
In Maryland two years earlier, the conviction of James Thompson, who had also served 20 years for murder and rape and whose case involved police and prosecutorial misconduct, was thrown into overwhelming doubt when his DNA didn’t match the semen found in the victim.
In neither case did prosecutors jump to set the prisoner free. Instead they vowed to retry the men unless they agreed to a plea bargain called an Alford plea, in which the defendant enters a guilty plea while also asserting his innocence for the record. The deal allows the inmate to leave prison right away. But he remains convicted of the crime, forever a felon.
Another strategy prosecutors employ is to offer to convert an inmate’s sentence to time served but with his conviction intact. Freedom in both instances is dangled as a carrot to entice the defendant to give up on exoneration.
These situations play out with numbing consistency around the country. The deals defy justice. So it was a righting of the scales when last November Steese, whom I wrote about for ProPublica, was pardoned by Nevada after I highlighted his case in Vanity Fair.
Desperate appeals from inmates and their families arrive in my voicemail and email almost every day. I can’t say whether those who contact me are innocent, but I do know that without the public spotlight a reporter can provide, or the attention of defense lawyers, their claims probably won’t get a second glance. Advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Innocence Project are flooded with far more requests than they can reasonably take on. Wrongful convictions are so widespread that writing about cases one by one feels like using a butter knife to break up an iceberg.
No one appears to have tracked how often prosecutors use Alford pleas in cases where exculpatory evidence has surfaced that provides inmates with powerful ammunition to contest their guilt.
Still, it seems everywhere I go I hear about another Alford plea. Recently, it was Leroy Harris, who had spent almost 30 years in jail on a rape conviction that came into question because of DNA testing and revelations of serious prosecutorial misconduct in Connecticut.
Prosecutors I’ve spoken to contend they seek Alford pleas because they are convinced the inmates are guilty. Often they say that the plea is the best way to ensure a guilty man remains convicted because effectively prosecuting a new trial may be too difficult for a variety of reasons, including that evidence had been destroyed or simply too much time had passed. The subtext is that the prosecutors may no longer be able prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
In the nearly two dozen cases I’ve investigated, seemingly insurmountable holes were blown in prosecution cases by recanting witnesses, newly discovered alibi records, debunked forensics, or, most damning of all, DNA results that didn’t match the defendant.
In the interest of justice, prosecutors should have acknowledged that they couldn’t meet their burden of proof and cleared those inmates. Instead, they were offered Alford pleas.
There’s an inherent conflict of interest at play for prosecutors because the same office that might have wrongfully convicted the defendant in the first place is in charge of deciding the innocence claim. States could overcome this hurdle by setting up independent commissions or conviction integrity units to investigate and decide the outcomes.
Alford pleas are also endorsed by judges, who have to sign off on them. Legal experts told me that if a judge doesn’t accept the deal, he’d be standing in the way of freedom for an innocent man. But some experts have suggested that, at the very least, a judge should directly ask a prosecutor in open court whether he is upholding his duty to the truth by offering an Alford plea.
The misuse of Alford pleas is not a partisan issue. These deals happen in blue and red states, with liberal district attorneys and conservative ones. In my reporting, there has often been a common denominator: official misconduct.
In Alabama two years ago, for example, prosecutors were trying to keep Montez Spradley on death row until his lawyers uncovered multiple constitutional violations — including that the state had not disclosed payment to a key witness. Prosecutors eventually agreed to let Spradley go, though they insisted on an Alford plea, which ensured there was no further investigation into their conduct.
What’s striking about these cases is that the real culprit in the crime is often forgotten. With the Alford plea, the police and prosecutors consider the case closed because the defendant, after all, has entered a guilty plea. In the cases of Alford pleas involving murders, the authorities, whose very job it is to keep a community safe, are effectively shrugging at a killer on the loose.
The pleas have another bonus built in for prosecutors: The law in most jurisdictions bars defendants from bringing civil lawsuits if they pleaded guilty. People like Thompson can be robbed of legal recourse. And try getting a job if you have a murder conviction on your record.
Thompson remains a convicted murderer, despite his release. But his co-defendant, James Owens, refused an Alford deal and remained in prison while he sought a new trial. On his first day in court, prosecutors dismissed the case. He is now suing the detectives who investigated his case for millions of dollars.
For those who accepted Alford pleas, a pardon is their only possible path to justice, and that’s a long shot in most states. Often pardons are held hostage by the political system, in the hands of leaders loath to be tagged “soft on crime.” The only person on the Nevada pardon board who voted against Steese’s pardon was the attorney general, who is running for governor.
If you grew up in New York City in the 1970s, the number can be hard to get your head around: 291. If you were a reporter in New York City in the early 1990s, the number can almost make your head explode: 291 murders in 2017, the lowest total since the 1950s.
But the number is perhaps most striking when set not against the numbers of murders in other years, but against this figure: the roughly 10,000 police stops conducted in 2017.
The longstanding rationale for the New York Police Department’s widespread use of what came to be known as stop-and-frisk — encounters between officers and people they suspected of suspicious behavior — had been that it was an essential crime-fighting tool. Such stops got guns off the street, the theory went, and low-level enforcement helped sweep up criminals destined to commit more serious crimes.
The rationale was employed as the numbers of stops skyrocketed during the 12 years of Michael Bloomberg’s mayoralty. Such stops, endorsed and aggressively enforced by then Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, rose from roughly 100,000 in 2002 to nearly 700,000 in 2011. The rationale was critiqued, by the New York Civil Liberties Union among others, but Bloomberg and Kelly pushed back, armed with year upon year of falling murder totals and other broad reductions in serious crime.
Ultimately, a federal judge, Shira Scheindlin, found the NYPD’s enforcement of stop-and-frisk racially unfair and unconstitutional. A new mayor, Bill de Blasio, and the judge’s orders for reform, prompted a radical scaling back of stop-and-frisk. Critics predicted a disastrous return to, depending on one’s age and experience, the 1970s or the 1990s.
The disaster never happened. Instead, what many scholars and police officials thought nearly unthinkable — further reductions in crime after two decades of plummeting numbers — did.
Holding murders under 300 was just the headline of 2017 statistics that saw considerable reductions in almost every category of major crime.
“Like many conservatives, I had grave concerns about curtailing the New York City police department’s controversial tactic of stopping and frisking potential suspects for weapons,” Kyle Smith wrote this month for the National Review.
“Restricting the tactic, I thought, would cause an uptick, maybe even a spike, in crime rates,” he added. “I and others argued that crime would rise. Instead, it fell. We were wrong.”
The achievement — curtailing both murders and stops — forced me to revisit my own decisions. I had the fun and privilege of serving as the metro editor of The New York Times for five years, but along with the occasional satisfactions came plenty of regrets. For me, none greater than my wish that I’d done a better job directing coverage of stop-and-frisk. My years as metro editor, 2006 to 2011, corresponded directly with the surge in stop-and-frisk.
Let me be clear. The New York Times was blessed with the city’s elite law enforcement reporters, and they did lots of fine and enterprising work.
Al Baker and Ray Rivera, for instance, did a breathtaking report on a handful of blocks in one section of Brooklyn where over four years police had conducted 52,000 stops. Numerically, it amounted to one stop a year for every one of the 14,000 people living on the four blocks looked at. In the more than 50,000 stops from 2006 to 2010, the police recovered 25 guns.
That said, I still wish we’d had the series of stop-and-frisk stories Graham Rayman, then of the Village Voice, produced. An officer in a Brooklyn precinct had recorded his commanders as they sent their men and women into the streets to conduct random stops. The reporting, among other things, brought to light the potential that quotas had been set for officers.
I sent an email Tuesday morning to Kelly, the former commissioner, to see if he had thoughts looking back. I also emailed an invitation to the spokesperson for current Police Commissioner James O’Neill to talk about his department’s dual accomplishments.
“No one could possibly believe there could be 685,000 legitimate stops in a year,” the spokesperson, Stephen Davis, said. “We just focused more on learning how crime works. There are a small number of people responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime.”
O’Neill has taken some heat from the monitor charged with overseeing the department’s reform of stop-and-frisk. A report from the monitor late in 2017 said there was credible reason to believe a large number of police stops were not being counted. Still, the true total could be twice the roughly 10,000 claimed and remain a small fraction of the nearly 700,000 recorded in 2011.
Regrets have an upside. They can provoke personal reform. And so when reporters for ProPublica and the Florida Times-Union set out to report on the enforcement of pedestrian tickets by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, we were sure to ask some hard questions. The sheriff’s office has said they viewed pedestrian violations as probable cause to stop and question suspicious people. It was a sensible crime-fighting tactic.
We asked what might form the basis for considering someone suspicious, but the office was not able to say much beyond it could be “tips” about possible drug dealing or the like. We asked about how well the pedestrian tickets were tracked — who was receiving them and where. The office said pedestrian stops were captured incidentally with call logs and other reports, but were not specifically tracked. Officials said it would be “too burdensome” to capture the full scope of every pedestrian encounter and associated demographics.
The reporting, which showed pedestrian tickets were issued disproportionately to blacks in Jacksonville and that hundreds of tickets had been issued in error in recent years, has prompted several local legislators to call for reforms to the state pedestrian statutes and the issuing of tickets by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
ProPublica and the Florida Times-Union have spent several months reporting on the issuing of pedestrian tickets in Jacksonville and in other parts of Florida. The reporting has shown that disproportionate numbers of the tickets in Jacksonville and elsewhere have gone to blacks, and that the seemingly minor infractions — jaywalking, walking on the side of the road — can have significant repercussions for people unable or unwilling to pay the resulting fines. The reporting has also included the finding that hundreds of the tickets given for a particular statute dealing with crosswalks were given in error.
On Jan. 11, 2018, ProPublica and the Times-Union reported that the Jacksonville State Attorney’s Office had issued a bulletin to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office offering guidance for the proper interpretation and enforcement of the state’s pedestrian statutes. The article reported that the bulletin supported the interpretation of the crosswalk statute that had formed the basis of the findings regarding the erroneous crosswalk tickets. The article reported that the Jacksonville City Council president, the local public defender, and half a dozen other local legislators were now calling for the suspension of all pedestrian ticket writing.
On Friday, Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams issued a press release claiming the article was inaccurate. ProPublica and the Times-Union stand by the reporting, and have responded to each of Williams’ claims of inaccuracy, which we set out in full below.
1. Inaccuracy: The bulletin factually is not a “state attorney’s office bulletin.” It is a bulletin issued by the Sheriff to his officers.
The bulletin distributed to the sheriff’s officers is signed by Andrew Kantor, assistant state attorney. We spoke directly with the State Attorney’s Office Thursday night. The office’s spokesperson clarified for us that the bulletin was the work of the state attorney’s office and done in response to the sheriff’s request for guidance.
2. Inaccuracy: The legal position drafted by the police legal advisor specifically did not include a review of past citations issued; instead it cut-and-pasted the precise legal requirements of the Florida statutes.
We did not say the review was of past citations. Indeed, the article says specifically that the review did not involve looking at the tickets identified by the Times-Union and ProPublica as problematic.
3. Inaccuracy: The writing by the Times-Union implies that an analysis of past citations was performed. This is factually incorrect.
4. Clarification: The reporters, Ben Conarck, Mary Kelli Palka (TU) and Topher Sanders (ProPublica) were specifically told that the document was not issued by the State Attorney but rather was a legal framework requested by the Sheriff. The framing of this document as a “review” is intentionally misleading.
The sheriff’s own release of Friday, Jan. 12, 2018, calls what he asked for a “review.”
5. Inaccuracy: While Andrew Kantor is an Assistant State Attorney, he serves as the full-time legal advisor to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. The Times-Union/ProPublica wording suggests that the State Attorney’s office has performed a review of past citations, which assertion is factually incorrect.
Again, Andrew Kantor is an assistant state attorney. He signed the bulletin that went to the sheriff’s officers. The state attorney’s office said the signed bulletin was the work of that office and done in response to the sheriff’s request for guidance/review. The article, once again, does not say the review was of past citations.
6. Inaccuracy: Assistant State Attorney did not issue a bulletin. The Sheriff issued a bulletin including Attorney Kantor’s exposition of Florida Statutes.
The bulletin was signed and dated by Andrew Kantor, assistant state attorney, and designed to give officers guidance for writing pedestrian tickets.
7. Clarification: Prior to publication, Ben Conarck (TU), Mary Kelli Palka (TU) and Topher Sanders (ProPublica) were specifically advised of the Sheriff’s request for such a legal review to be performed.
Once more, the article stated just this. It should be noted the sheriff again says he asked for a review.
8. Inaccuracy: The Times-Union and ProPublica continue to assume that citations were issued in error without any finding by any competent authority to that effect.
The Times-Union and ProPublica researched the crosswalk statute. We had multiple conversations with local experts about its proper interpretation and enforcement. We then checked the circumstances of each crosswalk ticket and determined those circumstances did not meet the terms of the statute and that tickets issued there were thus given in error. We stand by that analysis.
9. Clarification: In a telephone conversation with the Sheriff, the Council President said that she had been contacted by the reporters who told her that an “analysis” by the State Attorney showed that pedestrian citations were issued in error.
Ben Conarck of the Times-Union spoke with the council president, Anna Brosche. He did not tell her an analysis by the state attorney showed citations were issued in error. He informed her that the state attorney’s office review confirmed our reading of the statute as only being applicable in certain areas. He said that, as a result of that review and community concerns, Public Defender Charlie Cofer had decided to support a temporary pause on issuing pedestrian tickets until issues of legality and racial disparities were addressed. He asked the council president if she shared that view. Her response was that she did. In an interview Friday night, the council president said she was in the car at the time of the Thursday interview and cannot recall precisely what was said to her. She said her takeaway was that the state attorney had concluded that crosswalk tickets had been given in error. Brosche said the sheriff had assured her his office was conducting its own internal review of the crosswalk tickets, and she said as a result she no longer thinks a suspension of pedestrian tickets is called for.
10. Inaccuracy: Again, there was no “analysis” of citations by the State Attorney. There was a review of Florida Statutes by the police legal advisor at the Sheriff’s request.
11. Inaccuracy: Again, the Times-Union and ProPublica continue to assume that citations were issued in error without any finding by any competent authority to that effect.
12. Inaccuracy: There is no objective evidence that “people were being punished for failing to avail themselves of safety features that weren’t easily accessible.” The Florida Times-Union/ProPublica reporting has offered not one instance in which that is the case.
The plain purpose of the statute in question is to compel pedestrians to use the safer setting for crossing the street afforded by formal crosswalks and traffic lights. Our reporting shows that the sheriff’s officers have written hundreds of tickets to people for failing to do that when such safer alternatives are not reasonably available.
13. Inaccuracy: The last sentence above specifically contradicts the reporters’ assertions that (a) the State Attorney performed an analysis and (b) that such analysis had confirmed the reporters’ positions.
The Times-Union and ProPublica reported that people had been ticketed for failing to cross at signals when signals were not readily available and where there were other intersections at which they could cross. The state attorney’s bulletin makes clear that in those circumstances tickets should not be issued.
14. Clarification: Prior to publication, Ben Conarck (TU), Mary Kelli Palka (TU) and Topher Sanders (ProPublica) were specifically advised of the Sheriff’s request for such a legal review to be performed.
15. Clarification: The explanation by the police legal advisor is not a binding legal opinion, it is a guidance document requested by the Sheriff for his officers.
The article accurately reflected the sheriff’s office’s view on this.
16. Clarification: Multiple telephone and in-person conversations have revealed the Council members had been contacted by the reporters who alleged that an “analysis” by the State Attorney showed that pedestrian citations were issued in error. That assertion is factually incorrect.
17. Query: Coverage by the Florida Times-Union/ProPublica seems to be urging a moratorium on the issuance of pedestrian citations. The use of the term “suspending” suggests that the suspension would be temporary, but temporary until ... when?
No inaccuracy is asserted here.
18. Clarification: Ms. Dekine failed to pay her citation and chose not to take her position to court. Her failure to respond was the cause of the suspension of her driver’s license. Suspension of her driver’s license is the outcome prescribed under the Florida Statutes.
The article says exactly this.
19. The repetition of the word “erroneous” is problematic journalistically. There is no competent authority who has found the issuance of any citation to be “erroneous.”
20. Clarification: There is no explanation of the reporters’ methodology in assessing these statistics with other jurisdictions or with Duval County.
There is no claim of factual inaccuracy to respond to. Furthermore, reporters provided the sheriff’s office multiple letters detailing their findings and the methodology used in their analysis. The reporters’ methodology was also published in a separate story.
21. Inaccuracy: There has been no factual basis established that the pedestrian citations — not all of which are “crosswalk tickets” — has been “flawed.” The continuing assertions of such by two reporters does not make it so.
22. Clarification: There is no factual predicate in the article as to Mr. Hattaway’s credentials in assessing the actions of law enforcement. Moreover, Mr. Hattaway has no particular standing in understanding urban law enforcement in Duval County.
No inaccuracy is alleged.
23. Inaccuracy: The use of the word “confusion” — apparently inserted by the reporters — is biased and misleading. The Sheriff requested a legal memorandum to ensure that there was clarity for officers in issuing pedestrian citations. Apparently the desire to ensure clarity is being characterized as “confusion” by the reporters.
The confusion referred to involves officers and legislators and others statewide. Many people have attested to it.
24. Inaccuracy: The Times-Union/ProPublica analysis continues to isolate one demographic element — race — while ignoring age, gender, economic status, education level, or national origin.
There is no claim of factual inaccuracy.
25. Clarification: Citations are issued based on behavior, not on demographics.
The sheriff’s position on this question is accurately reflected in the article.
26. Inaccuracy: On average, 80,000 to 90,000 citations are issued by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office. Of those, approximately 400 of these annually are issued for pedestrian violations. The argument that the Times-Union/ProPublica makes actually concerns less than one-half of one percent of all citations issued.
The reporting done by the Times-Union and ProPublica has involved exclusively pedestrian tickets.
27. Inaccuracy: The Times-Union/ProPublica coverage continues to assume that there are “bad tickets” while there is no factual basis shown that anyone cited was not — at the time of the citation — violating the law.
28. Inaccuracy: The State Attorney has not performed a review. The police legal advisor has provided a legal framework — requested by the Sheriff — to guide officers in their sworn duty to enforce Florida Statutes.
The sheriff himself says he asked for a review and received one. The critical idea that the state attorney’s office was asked to help make sure the state’s pedestrian statutes were being properly enforced is accurately captured in this article and others before it.
29. Inaccuracy: The Sheriff and his leadership team have had multiple, in-depth conversations with the reporters from the Florida Times-Union and ProPublica. To state that he would not “discuss the ... findings in greater detail” is factually incorrect and misleading to readers.
The sheriff’s office has responded in general terms to our findings — saying that the tickets were given properly and not based on race — and has also discussed some of its philosophies in enforcing the statutes. Those viewpoints have been amply reflected in our reporting. But the sheriff’s office has said again and again it would not discuss specific tickets and our specific findings until his office had a chance to conduct its own assessments.
30. Clarification: Prior to publication, Ben Conarck (TU), Mary Kelli Palka (TU) and Topher Sanders (ProPublica) were specifically advised of the Sheriff’s request for such a legal review to be performed.
31. Grammatical Error: “analysis” doesn’t “spark” “upset.”
We respectfully disagree.
32. Facts: (a) Jacksonville has consistently led the state in pedestrian fatalities, (b) statistically, one pedestrian is involved in a crash every day in Jacksonville, and (c) one in four traffic deaths in Jacksonville involve a pedestrian.
There is no claim of factual inaccuracy. We have regularly reported on the dangerous circumstances faced by Jacksonville pedestrians.
33. Inaccuracy: The Times-Union/ProPublica continues erroneously to assert that a “legal review” has taken place. To reiterate, the Sheriff asked the police legal advisor for a legal framework that officers could follow. That is all that has occurred.
34. Clarification: Prior to publication, Ben Conarck (TU), Mary Kelli Palka (TU) and Topher Sanders (ProPublica) were specifically advised of the Sheriff’s request for such a legal review to be performed.
Here, the sheriff himself says he asked for a legal review, something he accuses us of having falsely reported.
35. Clarification: Inaccurate and biased coverage by The Florida Times-Union and ProPublica has created a false impression and does a disservice to readers and citizens.
We stand by our accurate and important reporting. That reporting has been welcome in many corners of Jacksonville and provoked calls for reform and improvement.
ProPublica Illinois is teaming up with Free Street Theater on a six-month initiative to engage with communities around the state. You may think it’s a little strange for a newsroom of investigative journalists to collaborate with a community-minded theater collective. It is. But it makes sense if you know the context of our work and goals.
First, a little background. When ProPublica Illinois opened its doors in October of last year, we knew that listening to people and involving them in our reporting would play a central role in our approach to journalism. We also knew that we’d need to think creatively about how to bridge divides and earn trust if we wanted our journalism to resonate across the state’s diverse, geographically disparate communities. In partnership with Illinois Humanities, we put out a call for projects that would help us address that challenge. That’s how we met Free Street Theater.
Free Street Theater has a long history (49 years!) of using live exercises and activities to facilitate conversations among people with different perspectives in ways that are fun, honest and informative. What if we were to find ways to connect what they do and what we do?
Here’s the idea: Working with ProPublica Illinois, Free Street will facilitate workshops around the state to spark discussion around the news and information that impacts Illinoisans. Based on what we’ve learned, Free Street will then provide ProPublica Illinois and the communities we visit with the tools to host future conversations.
Here’s where we’d like your input to shape what this project looks like:
- Our goal is to hold these workshops throughout Illinois. So, where should we go? Why? What are people already talking about there? This project is about conversation and information. We want to start by learning directly from you about issues in your own community. Has there been a lot of discussion about a police-related incident where you live? Are there issues with your drinking water? Or with pesticide use? Did a large employer recently close — or open? This type of input will help us create relevant, useful and responsive workshops that fit your community.
We’d like to visit a mix of urban, rural and suburban parts of the state, and we’re up to hold these workshops in storefronts, historical societies, libraries, the back room of a restaurant, a travel plaza — pretty much anywhere. Tell us where you think we should go and why we should go there.
- Who should we work with? We’re looking for people who are involved in their communities in some way. Maybe you’re an organizer, a teacher, a librarian, a parks and recreation department employee, or you just have a tight-knit group of friends. Reach out, say hello, and consider inviting us over. Or maybe you know someone else we should speak to. Send them our way.
Have more questions about this project? Let’s talk about it. Email ProPublica Illinois engagement reporter Logan Jaffe: [email protected].
Have a nice weekend.
The Jacksonville City Council president and other local lawmakers have called for suspending the issuing of pedestrian tickets in the wake of a state attorney’s office bulletin, the substance of which suggests that hundreds of tickets had been issued in error in recent years.
Jacksonville Assistant State Attorney Andrew Kantor on Tuesday issued a bulletin to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office detailing the proper enforcement of Florida’s pedestrian statutes — a document that supports a recent Times-Union/ProPublica analysis showing police have been issuing certain crosswalk violations in error, ticketing hundreds of pedestrians for failing to cross at formal intersections even when no such option was readily available.
“I’d like to make sure that we are enforcing the laws appropriately,” City Council President Anna Brosche said shortly after being made aware of the state attorney’s bulletin. “I do support a pause to make sure that everything is being enforced that should be.”
The Times-Union/ProPublica analysis published late last year found that more than 300 tickets over the last five years for pedestrians crossing streets outside a crosswalk resulted from mistaken interpretations of the applicable statute — errors that resulted in unwarranted fines and suspensions of people’s driver’s licenses.
While the statute bars pedestrians from crossing streets outside formal crosswalks when they are “between adjacent intersections at which traffic control signals are in operation,” officers nonetheless issued scores of tickets to people who had no reasonable access to such intersections. In short, people were being punished for failing to avail themselves of safety features that weren’t easily accessible.
During the Times-Union and ProPublica’s reporting on the tickets last fall, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office said it would seek guidance on pedestrian statute enforcement from the local state attorney. Kantor’s bulletin was his answer to the sheriff’s request. The office did not examine the tickets identified by the Times-Union and ProPublica, and the bulletin does not refer to the Times-Union/ProPublica findings.
It is unclear what, if any, steps Sheriff Mike Williams will now take. In an interview Thursday evening, Patrick Ivey, the sheriff’s office second in command, maintained that the state attorney’s position was not a legally binding opinion. Ivey added that the state attorney’s review would not retroactively apply to tickets already issued by sheriff’s officers.
Brosche’s call to temporarily halt all pedestrian ticket writing echoed similar calls by several other council members, as well as the Jacksonville public defender.
“I applaud the sheriff for seeking guidance from the State Attorney’s Office so that we can clarify the rights and responsibilities of motorists and pedestrians, not only for those charged with enforcement, but also for pedestrians and motorists themselves,” said Lori Boyer, a senior council member who has led a variety of efforts aimed at improving Jacksonville pedestrian safety record. “This guidance now gives us an opportunity to correctly educate everyone in our City about the proper use of our roadways. It is a big step in the right direction.”
Of the 17 other City Council members, six said they are in favor of suspending pedestrian ticketing. Another five said they needed to review the state attorney’s legal bulletin, which Boyer’s office sent to all members. The remaining either couldn’t be reached or said they would need time to review the matter.
A spokesperson for Mayor Lenny Curry said the mayor had not seen the state attorney’s bulletin.
“While we welcome the opportunity to review the State Attorney’s report, please know that the mayor relies on Sheriff Williams, his team, and the State Attorney’s office for enforcement and prosecution decisions,” said the spokesperson, Tia Ford. Ford did not say whether the mayor supported the idea of suspending ticketing temporarily.
Eboni Dekine, who had her driver’s license suspended after she failed to pay the fine for one of the erroneous citations in 2016, said people such as her who didn’t pay the fines should have their records cleared and those who did pay the fines should have their money returned.
“I’m glad that they were able to admit it and hope they do the right thing,” Dekine, a mother of two who is still without her license, said in an interview Thursday.
The Times-Union and ProPublica have identified 132 instances in which erroneous tickets led to driver’s license suspensions.
The flawed crosswalk tickets are not limited to Jacksonville, according to a Times-Union-ProPublica review of pedestrian tickets statewide. The Times-Union and ProPublica reviewed more than 2,600 such tickets throughout the state, and determined that at least 60 percent of them were given in error. Law enforcement agencies in Broward, Dade, Hillsborough and Orange counties all issued erroneous tickets to pedestrians.
Billy Hattaway, considered by many to be the state’s top expert on pedestrian safety and enforcement, was not surprised by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office’s confusion when asked by reporters last year. He said there is widespread lack of understanding about the statutes statewide — among officers, citizens and legislators. He said many of the pedestrian statutes need to be rewritten.
The Times-Union/ProPublica examination of pedestrian tickets in Jacksonville found that the sheriff’s office issued hundreds a year, a disproportionate number of them going to blacks. Indeed, all categories of pedestrian tickets — typically costing $65, and given for jaywalking, walking on the wrong side of the road, crossing the street at other than a right angle, and other violations — were disproportionately issued to blacks, almost all of them in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. In the last five years, blacks received 55 percent of all pedestrian tickets in and around Jacksonville, while only accounting for 29 percent of the population.
The crosswalk statute accounts for more tickets in Duval County than any other. Of the more than 300 bad tickets issued for crosswalk violations, 48 percent of them went to blacks.
Williams has maintained that his office’s enforcement of pedestrian statutes does not target blacks. His office has insisted that blacks have simply violated the statutes in greater numbers than others. But Williams’ office said it would not discuss the Times-Union/ProPublica findings in greater detail until the state attorney had done his review. His office added that anyone who felkt they were issued a ticket in error could contest the matter in court.
The analysis by the Times-Union and ProPublica sparked upset among a number of local legislators and civil rights leaders. There have been calls to suspend the issuing of pedestrian tickets and some moves toward enacting legislation to limit the impact of such tickets on recipients’ driver’s licenses. One meeting of the city council late last year was consumed by angry testimony about the ticketing effort.
The sheriff’s office has said the ticketing is designed to protect lives in a city that is notoriously unsafe for pedestrians. Yet the Times-Union/ProPublica analysis showed there was no great correlation between where tickets were being written and where pedestrian deaths were occurring.
Ben Frazier of the Northside Coalition, a community advocacy group, seemed grateful for the state attorney’s interpretation, but also repeated his call for a halt to ticketing.
“The Northside Coalition is renewing its call for the Sheriff to impose a moratorium on the writing of pedestrian tickets,” Frazier said in a statement. He added, “We are now asking the Mayor and the City Council to hold the sheriff accountable. The sheriff should be called before the council to explain why he is still allowing the civil rights of black residents to be violated.”
Jacksonville’s public defender, Charlie Cofer, said he welcomed the legal review by the state attorney’s office, saying it was consistent with his interpretation of the law, which he first voiced in November. Cofer said he, too, now believes that the sheriff’s office should stop writing pedestrian tickets and pause to examine the effects of the enforcement on the city’s more marginalized communities.
Cofer said the disproportionate ticketing in poorer neighborhoods “creates a perception within that community that they are being treated differently by law enforcement.”
“That is something I think that law enforcement has to consider,” Cofer said. “There are other collateral consequences of using statutes like this.”
Facebook and other online platforms are playing increasingly central roles in society: They help decide the news we see, the job opportunities we’re aware of and so much more. Just like other powerful institutions, their work should be subject to scrutiny. That’s why we’ve been reporting on them. With Facebook, we’ve shown how it has allowed companies to exclude older workers from job ads, allowed advertisers to exclude users by race and enabled advertisers to reach “Jew haters.”
We’re going to be doing much more, and we want you to help us dig. We’re looking for a technology reporter who will be part of one of the most innovative, cross-disciplinary reporting teams around. Take a look at the bylines in the stories we’ve done: You see straight-up reporters, coders, engagement reporters, researchers, statisticians and more.
You should have experience covering technology and tech companies, particularly on issues related to privacy and security. You should be to understand complex subjects and explain them in clear and compelling stories. You don’t need to be an experienced coder yourself, but should be able to talk to coders.
You should also have experience gathering and organizing data and using it to inform storytelling. That means being familiar with computer assisted reporting tools, which could include: SQL and database management; R or other statistical packages; and Python or other scripting languages.
We’re also looking for someone who:
- Has the curiosity and knowledge to develop a testable hypotheses that can be asked of a dataset
- Can file a lot of FOIAs and be organized and persistent about following up on them
- Has the patience to clean big datasets, just the same way that they would comb through a stack of FOIA documents
- Knows how to interview people and can engage with technologists on their level during interviews
- Aches to do stories that are both important and powerfully told
We know, it’s possible nobody may have all these skills. You can be a great candidate even if you don’t fit everything we’ve described above. You can also have important skills we haven’t thought of. If that’s you, don’t hesitate to apply and tell us about yourself.
We are dedicated to improving our newsroom, in part by better reflecting the people we cover. We are committed to diversity and building an inclusive environment for people of all backgrounds and ages. We especially encourage members of underrepresented communities to apply, including women, people of color, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities.
What you should send us:
The most important part by far is your past work. Send us your best stories, even if they aren’t about technology. We’d also like you to submit a memo that describes how you’d approach the technology platforms beat. What specific stories might you do? Tell us how you would execute them. How should they be told? How would you imagine achieving impact? Show us how you think.
If all of this sounds exciting to you, apply using this form.
The job is full time and include benefits. We are based in New York, but open to remote-working if the fit is right.
You can send questions to [email protected]. No phone calls, please.
The deadline for applications is Jan. 26.
A year ago, we said we would focus more on how the public can participate in our investigative reporting. We wanted to work more collaboratively and openly, and create more opportunities for participation.
So, our engagement team focused on finding the right audience — not just the biggest — to not only share our reporting but to help us do reporting. As we wrote last year, that meant hiring journalists who specialize in building and cultivating communities. We decided to call them engagement reporters, and we hired three great ones: Adriana Gallardo, Ariana Tobin and Logan Jaffe.
The result? Lots of good journalism that would otherwise not have existed. Here are a few things the public helped us report.
You helped us tell the story of why America is the most dangerous place in the developed world in which to give birth.
One of ProPublica’s most read stories last year was the tale of a neonatal nurse who died while giving birth at her own hospital. It was the first story in our series examining maternal care in the U.S.
But it wasn’t the first thing we published in this series. That wasn’t a story at all. It was a question and a request: “Do you know someone who died or nearly died in childbirth? Help us investigate maternal health.”
We started the crowdsourcing effort in February, three months before the first story in the series ran. Since then, we’ve collected nearly 5,000 stories from mothers and families affected by maternal complications or deaths.
The thousands of personal stories played a crucial in our coverage. It helped put a name and face to many of the estimated 700 to 900 women who die each year from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth; it helped show how severe complications for mothers are skyrocketing; and it helped us create an advice guide for mothers by mothers who nearly died.
And we didn’t leave it there. Engagement reporter Adriana Gallardo paired mothers and daughters to talk to each other about how maternal complications have impacted their families (contains audio). Here’s a sublime thread Adriana wrote about that.
You helped us find Facebook turning a blind eye to hate.
We got a trove of internal documents about how Facebook’s censors differentiate between hate speech and legitimate political expression. Looking at them, we found that Facebook’s secret censorship rules sometimes protect white men from hate speech but not black children.
We wanted to know more, specifically if the site’s censorship policies were actually working. So we developed a Facebook messenger bot to make it easy for users to submit questionable posts.
Hundreds of people submitted examples. When we asked Facebook about its handling of posts readers sent us, the company acknowledged that it had made the wrong call on nearly half of them.
You showed us that Facebook was letting companies exclude older workers from job ads.
Here’s where two crowdsourcing projects converged into one. In May, we asked people to share stories of age discrimination in the workplace. A few months later, we announced a completely separate project: We asked people to help us monitor political ads on Facebook. You’ll never believe what happened next.
The ads people submitted to our Political Ad Collector showed that companies were also placing job ads that were only being shown to younger users. (You can see the ads here.) The stories people submitted to the age discrimination callout allowed us go directly to the people impacted. In fact, one of those people became the lead example of our front page story with The New York Times.
You helped us go through White House staffers’ financial disclosures and find stories.
On a Friday night in April, the Trump administration said it was making White House staffers’ financial disclosure forms available. The disclosures laid out details like ownership of stock, real estate and companies — the kind of information that’s vital to ferret out potential conflicts. But there was a catch: The White House required a separate request for each staffer’s disclosure, AND it didn’t give the names of the staffers. With the help of readers and our partners at The New York Times and Associated Press, we pierced the administration’s attempt at opacity, found the names and made the disclosures public.
We posted the financial disclosures and asked the public to help us dig through the names. Readers sent us dozens of tips. One reader led us to a story about how President Donald Trump transferred some of his holdings to his son Eric while avoiding the usual taxes.
You helped us track the more than 1,000 officials Trump quietly deployed across the government.
The Trump administration has been slow to fill many jobs that need Senate approval. Yet it has made more than 1,000 temporary hires across the government without going through that vetting process. Many work at agencies they once sought to influence.
Again, once we got the names, we posted them and asked the public to help us dig in. One of the many tips we received led us to a Trump administration hire whom five students accused of sexual assault.
You helped us uncover members of Congress misleading constituents about Obamacare.
Early last year, a reader sent us an email she received from Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., after she sent him an email supporting the Affordable Care Act. A statistic cited by a senator’s office didn’t seem right to her. She asked us to fact-check it. We did. Blunt’s note was misleading and lacked key context. But we also thought: What were other members of Congress telling their constituents?
We asked the public to send in any correspondence they may have received from a member of Congress regarding the ACA. We partnered with Vox, Kaiser Health News and STAT News. Hundreds of letters came in. What we found: “They’re full of lies and misinformation.”
You helped us show the reality of the Trump Organization’s announced hotel expansion.
Last year, the Trump Organization announced it would be expanding its hotel business. It said it had 39 deals across the country. But it wouldn’t say where they were or who they were with. So we asked for your help to find them. (The Trump Hotels CEO called the effort “inappropriate and irresponsible.”) We received dozens of tips, and found false starts, fizzled-out partnerships, and, often, no signs of deals at all.
What to expect this year.
ProPublica’s mission is the same as ever — to do revelatory, powerful journalism that exposes injustices and spurs change. We on the engagement team want to use the skills we’ve developed to do more of it. We plan to do more work that is technology- and platform-based, more engagement with those who are civically involved and more crowd-driven projects that span investigations.
We told you we would share our experiences as we go — what we’ve learned from each project. We did some of that, but we want to do more. We want to not only be transparent and collaborative in our reporting, but also in how we’re doing it.
And, finally, what kind of post about participation, community and crowdsourcing would this be without asking for your help: What are your ideas? What should we be doing more of? Interested in this type of work? Get in touch. We’re always listening.