Mesa Police Brutality Case Shows Why Cracking Down on Jaywalking Isn't the Answer


By now, you've probably seen the blurry cell phone video that spread around the internet over the Fourth of July weekend, showing two Mesa police officers beating up an African-American man who'd been accused of jaywalking.

The exact details of what took place before the video starts are disputed. James Michael Barton, the man in the video, says that he wasn't even jaywalking in the first place and still had time to cross the street; the Mesa Police Department says that the "Do Not Walk" sign was on.

Barton says that he was never told to stop and instinctively moved out of the way when he saw police officers approaching; police say that he ignored their commands and started running, then reached for a bag of marijuana tucked into his clothing, which they perceived as him reaching for a gun.

Regardless, two things are clear. One, it's extremely fortunate that Barton is still alive. Two, the incident should never have occurred in the first place, because pedestrians shouldn't be getting stopped by police officers simply because they're trying to cross the street.

It's been well-documented that racial profiling often plays a part in police stops for minor traffic offenses such as these.

Across the country, African-Americans are disproportionately more likely to be arrested for jaywalking. Two days after Barton's encounter with the Mesa Police Department, a similar incident took place in Jacksonville, Florida, where a police officer was caught on video threatening a young black man with jail time after he allegedly crossed the street without a walk signal.

That video, which went viral before KPNX 12 News released the footage of Barton's arrest, inspired a larger discussion about the realities of "walking while black."

But even if the law is being enforced equitably, it still doesn't make sense. In a car-centric city like Phoenix, cracking down on jaywalking means targeting people who are the least likely to be able to afford a ticket.

On June 19, the day that Barton was arrested, the temperature hit a high of 119 degrees. By 10 p.m., when police saw him crossing the street, it had cooled down slightly, but not by much. No one walks anywhere in that kind of weather unless they have no other choice.

Navigating the Valley's unforgiving suburban landscape on foot in the oppressive summer heat is a feat of endurance, and people who do it regularly should get credit for their superhuman strength — not to mention the fact that they're helping out the environment. In reality, they're often subject to increased police scrutiny and expensive fines.

Earlier this year, Phoenix New Times wrote about how light rail riders were getting hit with $200 tickets for jaywalking as part of what the Tempe Police Department described as a safety campaign. Yet it's still perfectly legal to text and drive in Arizona, unless you're a teenager, in which case you have to wait six months after you get your license before you can start endangering people's lives.

The Mesa Police Department, too, has positioned its increased focus on walkers as a public safety measure. In a hastily convened press conference Wednesday afternoon, Detective Steve Berry explained that there had been 10 pedestrian fatalities in Mesa during the first half of the year alone, prompting the police department to step up their efforts to discourage people from jaywalking.

"One of the directives for officers is that when you see someone who's crossing against the light or crossing the street illegally in the roadway, you stop that individual and contact them," he said.

There's no question that the rising death toll for pedestrians is a legitimate concern. But the logic here is questionable at best: Why not focus instead preventing drivers from killing pedestrians?

 And since drivers undoubtedly don't want to kill pedestrians any more than pedestrians want to be killed, why not work with the planning department to figure out where these fatalities are taking place and whether adding new crosswalks might help solve the problem?

It's safe to say that most pedestrians aren't stupid and fully understand the danger of crossing the street without a walk signal. If you've ever tried to walk from your house to the grocery store, you can probably understand why people do it anyway.

Crossing any busy commercial street means being faced with a choice: Do you walk the entire length of an obscenely long block to wait for what feels like hours at the crosswalk, inhaling car exhaust and baking in the sun as you wait for the signal to change? Or do you quickly dart across the street when no one's coming? Most people choose the latter.

There's a way to fix this problem, and it involves designing streets better, not citing people for jaywalking or attempting to "educate" them about the risks involved. Unfortunately, the people who get around the Valley on foot don't tend to be the ones with the time or the political clout to contact their city leaders and demand improvements, which means their voices don't end up getting heard.

Any attempts to crack down on jaywalking should also worry anyone who pledged six months ago to stand against mass deportations. So far, Arizona hasn't seen the large-scale raids that people initially feared under the Trump administration. Instead, there's been a slow trickle of people getting booked into jail for minor offenses, turned over to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and then deported.

Jaywalking is considered a traffic offense and theoretically shouldn't result in anyone going to jail, but it's not hard to imagine that someone who's not here legally might panic and start running and then get charged with resisting arrest. And since undocumented immigrants can't legally get drivers' licenses in Arizona, they're that much more likely to walk to work or to get to the bus or light rail.

There's also evidence that a ticket for jaywalking might be considered enough of a criminal offense to make someone a priority for deportation: In Georgia, a Mexican man was heading to work earlier this year when he was arrested for jaywalking and detained by immigration officials, who initiated removal proceedings. It's unclear whether he has since been deported or is still being held in ICE custody.

Barton, too, is now caught up in the legal system. Though he posed no apparent threat to anyone when he was crossing Extension Road on a Monday night, he now faces charges for possessing marijuana and resisting arrest.

On Wednesday, Detective Berry said that police hadn't used physical force against Barton because he'd been jaywalking — they'd done it because because he'd started to run away when they approached, then continued to struggle as they tried to handcuff him.

"A lot of times we find people for whatever reason — jaywalking, whatever you want to call it — and go to make just a reasonable contact and they take off running," he said. "We don't know who that person is, we don't know if they've been involved in another crime, we don't know if they've just committed a homicide around the corner."

He insisted, "This is not a jaywalking case."

But that seems to be exactly what it is.
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Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.