State your case: Should jaywalking be decriminalized?

A recent bill signed by Calif. Governor Gavin Newsom legalizes safe street crossings in the state that has the highest number of pedestrian deaths

On September 30, 2022, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 2147, The Freedom To Walk Act, sponsored by Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), which legalizes safe street crossings.

The law, which goes into effect on January 1, defines when an officer can stop and cite a pedestrian for jaywalking – specified as only when a reasonably careful person would realize there is an immediate danger of a collision.

AB 2147 is Ting’s second attempt to decriminalize jaywalking in California. In a press release, Ting said, “It should not be a criminal offense to safely cross the street. When expensive tickets and unnecessary confrontations with police impact only certain communities, it’s time to reconsider how we use our law enforcement resources and whether our jaywalking laws really do protect pedestrians. Plus, we should be encouraging people to get out of their cars and walk for health and environmental reasons.”

“It's still technically illegal to cross the street in the middle of the street,” Ting explained to LAist. “But we're directing law enforcement not to cite people unless there's an immediate hazard.”

But with pedestrian deaths at a four-decade high in 2021, and California experiencing the most fatalities at just under 1,000 people, will this new law protect or harm those crossing streets in The Golden State? Read our columnists' take on this issue and share your opinions below.

The ground rules: As in an actual debate, the pro and con sides are assigned randomly as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing problems from different perspectives.

Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as chief of police in Colorado.

Jim Dudley: The “Freedom to Walk Act” is another piece of legislation created in the name of social justice, rather than one made out of need or public safety.  The public already had the “freedom to walk” provided they obeyed traffic laws. This new law will only create further contention with scofflaws, who will argue that they can cross a street that they deem to be safe. The fact that the Assemblyman speaks that enforcement only “impact[s] certain communities” is a clue that although intended as symbolic, there is a public safety risk that accompanies the legislation.

These statistics come from the California Office of Traffic Safety:

  • In 2018, 893 pedestrians were killed on California roadways, a 26% increase from 2014.
  • In 2018, more than 14,000 pedestrians were injured.
  • Pedestrian deaths rose 26% percent between 2014 and 2018.
  • Nearly 7,500 pedestrians died in California between 2009 and 2018.
  • California’s pedestrian fatality rate is almost 25% higher than the national average.
  • No state has more pedestrian deaths on its roadways than California.

Read that last declaration: “No state has more pedestrian deaths than California.” This statement should have been reason enough for this plan of “pedestrian freedom” to be certified as a bad idea.

Joel Shults: I get it, Jim. We can’t deny the stats. I am one of them.

Years ago, on my very first day as a police officer, I left the office after a long day. Wearing my pristine uniform consisting of dark pants and my dark Eisenhour jacket, I crossed the street midblock to get to my truck and became distracted by the siren that went off every night to mark curfew and tell the town’s kids to get on home. The next thing I remember was waking up in the emergency room with a Colorado State Trooper towering over my gurney. I asked what happened and he told me I’d been hit by a car. I asked if they caught the driver and the trooper told me it was one of my own officers heading home from his girlfriend’s house to get ready for his midnight shift. Neither the officer nor I ever lived that one down. Other than some road rash, a broken leg, and a ruined uniform, I survived. I suppose the ethical thing to have done was write myself a ticket for jaywalking. But I don’t disagree with California’s decision and let me illustrate why.

After the Michael Brown shooting, which followed Eric Garner's in-custody death, I was debating a John Jay professor on an NPR station who stated that Garner was killed for selling untaxed cigarettes and Brown was killed for shoplifting cigars. I called her out on minimizing those encounters, but it led to a discussion on the role of armed government agents enforcing minor offenses.

Broken windows theory notwithstanding, if I stop a pedestrian for throwing away a cigarette butt in the park, the contact escalates with the subject’s resistance – he begins to walk away, I try to detain him, he picks up a rock and charges at me and I end up using force that results in his death or injury, the headline will read “Litterbug beaten by police.” 

I agree that the legislation is sadly tainted by accusations of racism and selective enforcement, but maybe we can stop playing nanny on some of these things and answer the often repeated question: “Why aren’t you going after real criminals instead of playing Barney Fife?”

Jim Dudley: Sorry about your injuries and incidents. I understand what you’re saying about pedestrian violations as being on the lowest rungs of the enforcement priorities ladder, but still, to abdicate any authority over traffic laws and safety further erodes another aspect of the primary mission of law enforcement: to keep the public safe (sometimes counter to their own self-interests).

I am not against the idea of someone standing on a deserted road deciding to cross a road. But in urban environments, there are so many distractions to drivers and pedestrians alike. Drivers have music blaring, mapping apps talking to them or showing them directions. I have seen some drivers eating bowls of food with two hands, reading a newspaper and even watching movies on tablets! Pedestrians may be glued to their personal devices or phone screens, with headphones on, oblivious to their surroundings. I can just hear them shouting that they “deemed the street safe to cross” as they are loaded into the ambulance.

Seriously, check out all the related shootings and attacks attributed to the Baltimore “squeegee guys” who run into traffic and clean drivers’ windshields as they wait for traffic lights to change. The same can be said for the traffic disruptions caused by people walking in the street to sell to or beg from drivers. The idea that it is OK for a pedestrian to be in the street if they deem it safe, has so many possible unintended consequences.

Joel Shults: It seems that there is enough room in the new law for enforcement where a clear danger does exist. It remains to be seen if the streets become so chaotic in the absence of general enforcement that the law gets changed. Even if that were the case, at least there would be a cause-effect relationship established between enforcement and compliance for the public and legislature to consider.

Jaywalking is a fascinating point of discussion about some of the basic theories and assumptions about social control through policing. What is the deterrent value in relation to the likelihood and severity of punishment? What level of enforcement results in a difference, if any, in deaths and injury related to a certain behavior?

As with many legislative decisions, I’d be surprised if this effort was data-informed but there must have been an assumption that the number of pedestrian at-fault crashes will not be significantly affected. As I said, that remains to be seen.

One of the considerations I have long held should be a basic element of every law is what I call the “liberty index.” What is the value of the law relative to the inevitable loss of freedom? I think the liberty index prohibiting safe jaywalking (meaning they made it across with no resulting crash) would tend toward the negative. In other words, letting people make their own informed decisions about crossing a street has a positive liberty value, while sending an armed government agent after a person crossing the middle of the block in plenty of time to make it across without disrupting traffic has a negative liberty value. Let freedom sprint!

Jim Dudley: I agree Joel, yet I’d argue that anyone hit by a car would argue that they believed it was safe to cross at the time. Would it then be on law enforcement to prove that the crossing was dangerous at the time?

The Baltimore example is a good one, in that it may seem innocuous to walk among cars at stopped traffic to panhandle, sell merchandise, or squeegee a windshield, but the situation becomes dynamic once the light changes. This amendment to California’s traffic laws is a weak and dangerous attempt to rectify a perception that the laws are applied unevenly. 

In this article, author Stephen Walters describes the harms and sometimes mayhem that accompanied Baltimore’s foray into the nonsense of free-for-alls on public streets.

Joel Shults: I agree that the law seems more political than practical, but legislation often gets ahead of the facts. Many years ago in a traffic management class, I learned the three Es of traffic safety: Education, engineering and enforcement. Media attention to pedestrian safety, road design and signage, and people getting tickets are all important and in about that order. I think the enforcement part can continue with citations for flagrantly dangerous behavior and especially focus on drivers who fail to yield to pedestrians who have the right of way. I still contend that the issue comes down to how much society is willing to allow each other the right to make bad decisions for themselves. 

Police1 readers respond

  • Yes, jaywalking should be decriminalized. If there is a clear path to cross and you can cross safely it should be allowed. However, if you decide to cross outside the crosswalk and ignore the walk sign and get hit by a car, that is on you. I know this won't work as society has clearly lost common sense and people have become self-involved.
  • I did not know one could be arrested for jaywalking, I thought it was only a citation issue. It's funny how they say "unnecessary confrontations with police impact only certain communities." So they are saying only certain people jaywalk??? The complaint of the "expensive" ticket, doesn't the city set that price? Plus sounds like another tool to take away from cops to compel ID. I'm sure a lot of stops for jaywalking found warrants, guns, drugs, etc. 
  • Absolutely not for the mostly insulting reasons cited and for the "I wanna be president" person signing it into law. Look at the precedent this type of "social justice warrior" mentality sets. Where does it stop? How many laws do we stop enforcing altogether in "certain neighborhoods?" What about the law-abiding citizens trapped in those neighborhoods? Who looks out for them?

  • It should absolutely not be decriminalized. This seems like a bill influenced and aimed at politics rather than public safety. Especially ridiculous when they stated that these policing actions (jaywalking) only impacted and focused on "certain communities." Many criminals with warrants have been temporarily taken off the street due to an initial crime of jaywalking, which an officer observed and contacted the subject for. In the cases where the jaywalker has no warrants, it's most often released with a warning, rarely have I seen them ticketed. If they get a ticket, it ends there – no arrest, jail, etc. The only time people go to jail for jaywalking is when they unnecessarily escalate the stop, or during the course of the investigation, officers discover they have warrants.

  • NO. It saves lives. I’m Latino and I’m tired of hearing laws are changed or the act is decriminalized when people yell racism. Follow the laws in place for a reason. Stop trying to please the lawbreakers no matter what race.

  • There are SO many important issues in our country and especially in California that negate jaywalking. Yes, I'm aware that if you make contact the offender may have warrants or a mental issue, but that is a waste of critical time for officers! Yes, it should be repealed. I'm 51 years old and have 23 years as a police officer and now work for the sheriff. Everyone has crossed a street in the wrong place. But you are responsible if you decide to cross a street. If you walk with your face buried in your cell phone and you get clipped that is YOUR fault. I work in a large metropolitan area in the south. And that should be a secondary violation for the stop. Personally, I have never issued a complaint for jaywalking because that will stick with you for the rest of your COP life. 

  • Absolutely not. The reason: the jaywalking law is an awesome tool for LE in controlling crowds or a place where rowdy youths hang out. For example, a high school lets out every day at 14:30. It’s mass chaos in front of the school that is located on the main road out front. The police now have a tool to keep students out of the street and running back and forth through traffic disrupting it. It also creates a more orderly dismissal, as students have to walk to corners or crosswalks to cross the street. It is similar to addressing quality-of-life crimes. When the small things are enforced, it tends to lower more serious crimes. 

  • No, most reasonable pedestrians use crosswalks or signalized intersections already so now you are encouraging bad behavior.

  • Yes, let's go ahead and decriminalize jaywalking and free up the officer's valuable time. Another important reason to get rid of jaywalking is the use of jaywalking to detain someone and compel them to show ID. And if things don't work out, then make it a crime again.

  • No, it shouldn't because more people will die because they will just cross the road when ever now.

  • Common sense. If it's the middle of the night and there is light traffic and someone wants to go to an establishment directly across the street is it really doing any harm? Don't we have better things to do than create another person who hates cops? The same goes for the guys that ticket people for going 5MPH over. That's not police work. If someone jaywalks on a busy street and is being reckless then, yeah, cite away.

  • NO, absolutely not! What a great example for parents of what not to teach their children. Yeah, kid, it's ok, just run across the street. And now with quiet electric cars that you cannot even hear, that will make it more safe to jaywalk... NOT......

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