Jaywalking decriminalization is coming to Va., 100 years after the auto industry helped make it a crime

This article was written by WTOP’s news partner InsideNoVa.com and republished with permission. Sign up for InsideNoVa.com’s free email subscription today.

Though it didn’t garner as much attention as other police reform measures during the special legislative session that ended this fall, a provision to decriminalize jaywalking in a pretextual policing bill from Delegate Patrick Hope, D-Arlington, means that come March 1, police will no longer be able to stop folks for the act of crossing the street outside of a marked crosswalk.

Criminal justice reformers called it a small step along the path to reducing encounters with the police, especially for people of color.

Although jaywalking will remain illegal, other advocates worry decriminalization could encourage pedestrians towards further unsafe crossings at a time when Virginia’s pedestrian death rate is already at a record high.

But are such fears founded?

Most countries would consider the concept of jaywalking a scam that Americans have been conditioned to believe is normal.  In the Netherlands, for example, traffic engineers and urban planners have actually worked to lower the country’s curbs so as to encourage people to cross wherever they like.

Before the advent of the automobile, pedestrians in America were widely recognized as having the right of way in all situations.  The road to car culture’s dominance in the United States was literally paved with blood — drivers had already killed some 200,000 people by 1920.  In response, auto industry groups launched a “jaywalking” campaign to place blame for collisions on pedestrians rather than drivers.

Walking while Black

The passage of laws making jaywalking expressly illegal over the following decades also led to an increase in pedestrian interactions with the police.  African Americans have long complained of police stops for the offense of “walking while Black.”

A 2019 audit of the New York Police Department revealed that officers issued 90 percent of “illegal or unsafe crossing” tickets to Blacks and Hispanics although those two groups make up just 55 percent of the Big Apple’s population.  A ProPublica investigation in Jacksonville, Florida similarly found Black residents received 78 percent of all tickets for “walking in the roadway where sidewalks are provided” despite comprising just 29 percent of the city’s population.

The lack of such figures for Virginia localities comes down to an absence of reporting.  “Data on police encounters is difficult to gather, especially on something like this because jaywalking is very frequently just a pretext for stopping someone and not the actual thing the police officer wants to investigate,” said Brad Haywood — the founder and executive director of Justice Forward Virginia.

Haywood and the other public defenders behind Hope’s bill crafted the legislation based on their experience “representing poor, Black and brown people against some of the most ridiculous reasons for stops,” such as objects dangling from rearview mirrors, loud mufflers and tinted windows among others.

To Haywood and his colleagues, the disproportional enforcement of jaywalking was clear: “None of us had ever had a White client who was stopped for jaywalking. I probably jaywalk two times on my way to work every day, and I’ve never been stopped for it and likely never will. It’s just one of those things that led to racist policing.”

“I heard from countless communities of color that this type of thing happens to them all the time,” Hope said.  “Jaywalking is a leading contributor of people being stopped and sometimes arrested. A disproportionate number of people that are stopped for these infractions are people of color and the purpose of this bill is to get at that issue and curb the number of negative interactions with police over minor offences.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story included a statistic claiming that 65% of people pulled in traffic stops in Arlington County were Black, despite African Americans making up 10-12% of the county’s population. A 2019 crime report from Arlington County says that this number is nearer 28.5% when counting non-residents and around 4% for residents. 

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