Kansas City leaders take aim at jaywalking law for racial disparities in citations

Pedestrians jaywalk across Topeka near Waterman.
·3 min read

A proposal that would eliminate penalties for jaywalking and other pedestrian offenses cleared an initial hurdle as Kansas City leaders explore changes aimed at reforming laws that disproportionately harm people of color.

Members of the city’s Transportation, Infrastructure and Operations Committee recommended removing jaywalking offenses from traffic codes during a meeting Wednesday. It is scheduled to be heard Thursday before the full City Council.

In a statement on Twitter after the vote, Mayor Quinton Lucas said “the data on disparities in arrests over the years shows serious concerns and shows why we need to decriminalize daily life” in Kansas City. Lucas sponsored the legislation.

The proposed legislation would strike jaywalking from the city code. Other changes deal with tickets issued for operating a bicycle with dirty tires and inspection of bikes.

Jane Brown, the mayor’s general legal counsel, said there were about 123 citations issued for jaywalking in Kansas City over the past three years. Of those, 65% were issued to Black people and 34% were written to white people, she said.

Brown added that the majority of tickets, 83%, were issued to men versus 16% issued to women. When looking at all of the city’s pedestrian citation violations — jaywalking included — 54% of tickets were issued to Black people and 45% to white, Brown said.

Nearly 30% of Kansas Citians are Black, while about 55% of residents are white, according to recent census data. Another 10% are Hispanic or Latino.

As the proposal was drafted, the Kansas City Police Department and others raised concern over situations where drivers might face civil liability for striking a pedestrian in the road if the language outlawing jaywalking was removed, Brown said. She noted, however, there are other existing laws that fulfill that need.

Councilwoman Katheryn Shields, 4th District at-large, pointed to the statistics as showing the tickets are “overwhelmingly going to minority members of this community.” She also referenced the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the unrest that followed.

“That’s what started that whole thing, was somebody walking unlawfully in the street,” Shields said, adding that she wants jaywalking eliminated entirely from city offenses.

Councilman Kevin O’Neill, 1st District at-large, agreed.

“I think this is something that should just be abolished altogether,” O’Neill said.

In written testimony to committee members, several organizations — including KC Tenants and the Kansas City Regional Transit Alliance — said they supported the measure as “a step to limit” over-policing in the city’s Black and brown communities.

In her testimony, Andrea Clark, policy and planning manager at KC Healthy Kids, cited a 2017 Florida Times-Union and ProPublica investigation that found there was “no strong relationship” between where such tickets were issued and where pedestrians were killed in Jacksonville. Instead, the news outlets discovered that such laws targeted people in low-income neighborhoods.

“It is unreasonable to punish people for walking in the street when many neighborhoods lack safe and accessible sidewalks, especially in under-resourced and Black and Brown communities,” Clark wrote. “Instead, we should invest in the built environment to create streets and public spaces that are safe and accessible for users of all ages, abilities, and modes of transportation.”

The local chapter of the Sierra Club, an environmental organization, said Kansas City needed to ensure that alternative modes of transportation to vehicles “do not become tools of needless policing.”

Such over-policing has led to wrongful convictions, the Midwest Innocence Project wrote in its testimony supporting the proposal.

The organization cited the case of a Texas man whose photo was used in a police lineup after a rape — not because he was a suspect, but because he was previously photographed following a traffic violation. He spent 23 years in prison before DNA cleared his name.

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