Pedestrians dashing across the street to take advantage of a break in traffic flow, even without the pedestrian signal, is a common sight in San Francisco and across the state.
But for some people, particularly those of color, the seemingly harmless time-saving hack can result in a criminal citation that carries steep fines.
Assemblymember Phil Ting wants to decriminalize jaywalking. He introduced legislation on on Thursday that seeks to lessen the undue financial burden of such tickets on the economically vulnerable and prevent the disproportionate criminalization of communities of color for minor legal infractions.
“Whether it’s someone’s life or the hundreds/thousands of dollars in fines, the cost is too much for a relatively minor infraction,” Ting said at a press conference. “It’s time to reconsider how we use our law enforcement resources and whether our jaywalking laws really do protect pedestrians and all road users.”
His legislation, Assembly Bill 1283, also known as the Freedom to Walk Act, would legalize street crossings outside of a marked or unmarked crosswalk or against a traffic light. The bill would also nix the fines associated with jaywalking, which can top $250 even before late fees.
The bill does stipulate that it would only be legal to cross the street without using a crosswalk or without the go-ahead of the traffic light when it doesn’t lead to an immediate hazard; however that definition has yet to be detailed.
Across California, a litany of data shows people of color are more likely to be stopped by law enforcement, even for minor infractions, a reality supporters of the bill have cited as proof the enforcement of jaywalking is arbitrary.
“Low-income communities and communities of color are more likely to be cited for crossing unsafely due to societal racial bias and poor crosswalk conditions in their neighborhoods that emphasize drivers’ needs over other road users,” said Caro Jauregui, co-executive director of California Walks.
A report from the California Racial and Identity Profiling Act looking at the period between 2018 and 2020 shows Black Californians are stopped up to four-and-half times more than their white counterparts.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area released a report titled “Cited for Being in Plain Sight” in September 2020 that evaluated the citation trends of the state’s 15 largest law enforcement agencies between July 2018 and December 2019.
The analysis found overwhelming racial disparities in the 250,000 non-traffic infraction citations issued during that period: Black adults in California were 9.7 times more likely to be cited for behaviors such as standing, sleeping or crossing the street as compared to their white counterparts in the same area, and Latino adults were 5.8 times more likely.
The stakes of these encounters can be high.
Chinedu Okobi, whose family says he had a history of mental illness, was killed in 2018 in Millbrae by San Mateo County deputies after an encounter that began with a report that he was walking through traffic.
“Jaywalking laws do more than turn an ordinary and logical behavior into a crime; they also create opportunities for police to racially profile,” said Jared Sanchez of the California Bicycle Coalition, a co-sponsor of the bill. “A stop for a harmless infraction like jaywalking can turn into a potentially life-threatening police encounter for Black people, who are disproportionately targeted and suffer the most severe consequences of inequitable law enforcement.”
The San Francisco Police Department has its own track record of racial bias in enforcement.
According to data from the SFPD Racial and Identity Profiling Board, people of color made up 65 percent of all stops made by officers of a person on foot or in a car in 2019.
Chief Bill Scott told members of the Police Commission at a meeting last summer that while he believes these disparities continue to be a persistent problem, he does see progress in the department’s efforts to weed out racial bias in its enforcement practices, in part by reducing the number of stops and searches overall as well as by doubling down on its implicit bias training.
SFPD did not immediately respond to comment on Ting’s legislation.