As The Courier-Journal reported this week, Metro Police officers have been issuing warnings to downtown Louisville pedestrians not to jaywalk. Soon, the warnings will become citations and fines. This is all part of a local pedestrian safety program creatively called “Look Alive Louisville,” which is designed to help the city reduce its above-the-national-average number of pedestrian deaths.
Keeping pedestrians safe is of course a noble cause. The human body can’t win a fight with a car. But a police crackdown on expedient walking raises a bevy of its own problems, especially the specters of futility and unfair enforcement.
First of all, what is jaywalking? “Jaywalking” is loosely defined as crossing a street, as a pedestrian, at a place somewhere other than in a marked crosswalk. Our streets physically funnel automobiles to certain paths and routes through the city, but people on foot have more freedom, and can pass nimbly from sidewalk to street and back with minimal effort. Jaywalking laws reject pedestrian convenience and attempt to funnel people the same way we funnel cars – along clearly defined, predictable routes.
The idea that pedestrians don’t belong on the street and should only cross at narrowly defined places is a recent invention of the automobile age. Earlier this year, an illuminating article by Vox explored the history of traffic laws and jaywalking. In the old days now long gone, cities were a space for people, not cars. Now, especially since the Urban Renewal age of the 1960s and 1970s, all public space belongs to the almighty automobile. Where once it was the primary duty of vehicle drivers to avoid pedestrians, we now expect people on foot to get out of the way or risk death.
As we now see it, cities are for cars and pedestrians are obstacles. A crackdown on jaywalkers only reinforces this sad urban ideology. It also raises other concerns.
Ticketing pedestrians does not actually increase safety. For an idea of how effective a crackdown on jaywalking will be at protecting pedestrians, we need only to look at other cities that have tried them. The best example is Los Angeles, the famously car-centric metropolis. The LAPD has for years issued tens of thousands of jaywalking tickets, yet the city, along with the entire state of California, routinely leads the country in pedestrian fatalities.
So while ticketing people walking outside of crosswalks doesn’t seem to reduce the number of deaths (especially those that occur in crosswalks), it does raise revenue. Multiply tens of thousands of Los Angeles tickets by the $250 fine they carry and you get yourself a lot of money. Though the more modest tickets issued by LMPD will range from $20 to $100 (with no explanation for the wide discrepancy), the revenue generated by them will still create an incentive for police to issue as many as they can.
The method of ticketing is problematic as well. This crackdown on wayward walkers will feature undercover officers and “hidden” police cars surprising people with tickets as they attempt to navigate hectic city streets in a so-called “pedestrian decoy operation.” It sounds like an ambush, not a safety effort.
In some cases, aggressive jaywalking crackdowns have led to terrifying results, like the bloody arrest of an 84-year-old man by NYPD officers early last year. After he safely crossed the street, cops confronted him, took his ID, then tackled him when he did not understand their commands. For him, the police were more dangerous than traffic.
He has since filed a $5 million lawsuit, which could negate a lot of the revenue generated by the crackdown that victimized him.
Finally, it may or may not surprise you that the brunt of “broken windows” policies like jaywalking crackdowns falls disproportionately on the poor and non-white. Minor violations are used as an excuse to harass and financially exploit. In New York, 81 percent of the 7.3 million minor citations and summonses issued by police between 2001 and 2013 went to black and Hispanic people, who comprise much smaller minorities of the city’s total population.
Elsewhere, in St. Louis, a recent Department of Justice investigation revealed that much of the racial strife in small suburbs like Ferguson is due to aggressive, “for-profit” policing. Penalizing minor violations (of course in the name of safety) generates vast revenues and therefore incentivizes increasingly aggressive police tactics. Minorities and poor people make for easy targets in our biased and expensive justice system and are disproportionately targeted, creating subsequent tension and distrust of the police – not to mention deaths.
In a city with more pressing law enforcement problems, like an increasing murder rate and rampant property crime in some neighborhoods (Louisville still has thirty unsolved murders from 2012 alone), it is worth asking if police attention should really be diverted to ambushing pedestrians for walking out of bounds. Aggressive policing of “crimes” like jaywalking often does little to increase safety. It only generates revenue. We should not convert our police into well-armed tax collectors.
If we were really inclined to promote pedestrian safety rather than just siphon money out of people crossing the street, those undercover officers at problem intersections could instead stand, in uniform, and direct traffic.