Arrest of jaywalker in Austin, Texas, prompts outcry

A close-up of red-man don't walk sign. An ignored "don't walk" sign becomes a much bigger story

A video of a jaywalking incident that escalated into a confrontation with police has garnered international attention - and the police chief's post-incident comments didn't help matters.

Last Thursday police in Austin, Texas, began a "pedestrian enforcement" activity near the campus of the University of Texas, where they stopped and warned or ticketed jaywalkers.

When law enforcement officers attempted to issue a jaywalking citation to a jogger, Amanda Jo Stephen, she refused to stop. Some witnesses say she didn't hear the officers, as she was wearing earphones. Police contend that the officers were clearly visible to her.

Start Quote

In other cities, cops are actually committing sexual assaults on duty, so I thank God that this is what passes for a controversy in Austin, Texas”

End Quote Art Acevedo Austin Chief of Police

One way or the other, according to reports, police chased her down and detained her, at which point she became unco-operative and refused to give her name. Several officers then placed her under arrest, and she was carried, screaming into a police car and taken to jail, where she was booked for jaywalking and "failure to identify".

The reason this became a national story is that a college student sitting at a coffee shop across the street recorded the whole scene and posted it to his blog. The reason it became an international story was what Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said during a press conference on Friday:

It's kind of interesting what passes for controversy in Austin, Texas. Thank you Lord that there's a controversy in Austin, Texas that we actually had the audacity to touch somebody by the arm and tell them: "Oh my goodness, Austin Police, we're trying to get your attention." Whew! In other cities, cops are actually committing sexual assaults on duty, so I thank God that this is what passes for a controversy in Austin, Texas."

At that point, the headlines pretty much wrote themselves:

"Austin Police Chief Graciously Does Not Sexually Assault Jaywalkers, Isn't That Nice?"

"Austin police chief says jaywalkers should be happy they're not sexually assaulted by cops"

"Cops DEFEND arrest of jogger who was tackled and handcuffed 'when she didn't hear cops because of headphones'"

"It's a strange bit of logic, to say the least," writes Dan Solomon on Texas Monthly's the Daily Post blog. "It is good that there aren't currently any pending sexual assault accusations against on-duty APD officers, to be certain, but the fact that the police chief went there when explaining how good people in Austin have it is troubling."

The political satire site Wonkette had a field day with the story.

Start Quote

People in law-enforcement tend to identify with a motorist's perspective”

End Quote Ray Thomas Lawyer

"We're not sure the citizens of Austin should feel all that safe knowing the cops are just barely restraining themselves from sexually assaulting jaywalkers and other such dangerous criminals," writes Kaili Joy Gray. "You know, for bike and pedestrian safety."

On Saturday Mr Acevedo posted an apology online, in which he called the reference to sexual assault a "poor analogy" and the result of an "emotional week" in which an individual was found guilty of murdering a city police officer.

"During the press conference I attempted to place the arrest into context by bringing attention to the fact that law enforcement deals with many acts of serious misconduct," he writes. "This includes recent instances in the news of sexual assault by police officers in other cities."

Solomon doesn't buy the explanation, however.

"If Acevedo is willing to cite heated emotions as the reason he employed that bizarre defense for his officers, we might also suggest that he consider if those same emotions may have led to an overreaction in how they handled the situation with the jaywalker," he writes.

All this calls to mind a recent article by the BBC's Aidan Lewis about the history of jaywalking. The origins of the offence, he writes, come from "a propaganda campaign by the motor industry in the 1920s" to "shift the blame for pedestrian casualties from drivers to walkers".

Lewis quotes Ray Thomas, a Portland, Oregon, lawyer who specialises in pedestrian and bicycle law:

"People in law-enforcement tend to identify with a motorist's perspective", he says. Wherever there's a push to protect the rights of pedestrians, officials feel they also need to enforce limits on them.

"It's their version of being fair," he says. "The difference is that no jaywalking pedestrian ever ran down and killed a driver, and by sheer survival strategy most pedestrians don't jaywalk in front of cars."

As long as jaywalking laws are on the books, of course, police have a responsibility to enforce them. And there clearly are valid reasons why a stopped individual should provide identification and co-operate with authorities.

In other words, everyone should act like calm, rational adults. Perhaps that's too much to ask, but in this age of social media, where the average smartphone is a sophisticated digital video recorder, the consequences of doing otherwise are painfully clear.



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  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    This is a police state in truth, not the land of the free. Americans do bang on about the revolutionary war and why but allow themselves to get trampled on by law enforcement instead of going to court and arguing. Many times things would be dismissed but of course you don't get back the time spent either. My silliest arrest was because my grass was too long.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    "...calm, rational adults." Oh come on...this is Tejas. Rational thinking is frowned upon. I know, I live in Tejas

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    I am truly thankful that I do not live in Texas--and will never visit after enduring these kinds of stories. From the interesting fellow named Perry on down, it's just not a confidence-inspiring set of cultural values, equity, or anything else. The loud-mouths seem to get most of the attention--what happened to the wise, thoughtful, well-educated Texans? There have got to be some down there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Read: From "Jaywalking in Austin" to "A threat to USA Sovereignty" in under 400 characters

    TPP is very worrisome, especially since there is no transparency
    Even our own Congress does not know the details

    Our media will probably talk about the jaywalking but not even mention TPP which is a far bigger controversy

    Luckily Malaysia just said no but its not over yet

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Many younger officers are unapproachable and definitely consider themselves above the law rather than just people doing a job.Many don't know or don't care about a persons rights and assume they will be unchallenged when stopping a person for any reason.They are armed, glorified ticket writers employed to encourage massive revenues to cities for petty issues.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Mitt: If you have no reason to believe you have committed an offence, you are not required to give a police officer any information

    Its not about what we believe, its about what the police believe

    If a police officer believes a person committed a crime, they have the right to ask for a person's name and if that person refuses to give it,
    then they have the right to arrest them

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I'm all for being tough on crime but the problem is more and more police officers are acting like Nazis instead of public *servants.* Then when police officers act wrongly they all seem to automatically defend each other.

    There is only one thing I hate more than criminals, and that's dirty, corrupt cops who have been entrusted by the public to be act respectfully, professionally and honorably.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    @16. LucyJ

    The biggest controvery in America right now is not jaywalking arrests,
    its the TPP agreement which is just like EU

    Obama wants to fast-track this controversial agreement that would give up USA soverieghtny.

    From "Jaywalking in Austin" to "A threat to USA Sovereignty" in under 400 characters.


  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    If you have no reason to believe you have committed an offence, you are not required to give a police officer any information, including your name. This jogger was unaware that she had done anything wrong (and had she, really...?) until she was stopped by officers who then forcefully arrested her and manhandled her into a car... If I was her, I'd resist too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Dont really see the big deal, she was asked not to jay walk she either ignored the police or didnt hear them so she was stopped and was uncooperative. Police chiefs choice of words were poor but so what? This is the sort of issue that only becomes an event because of social media in my opinion, has a tendency to latch on to these things and blow them out of proporition.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    The reason why the girl was arrested was because she refused to give her identidy which is very suspicious

    At no time can you refuse to give your identidy to police which is illegal

    The biggest controvery in America right now is not jaywalking arrests,
    its the TPP agreement which is just like EU

    Obama wants to fast-track this controversial agreement that would give up USA soverieghtny

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    What's nuts about this is Austin has a street called 6th Avenue I believe that has numerous bars, nightclubs and restaurants on it. On Friday and Saturday nights while the university is in session the kids pour out onto the street and take it over. Vehicles move at a crawl and the street is full of pedestrians who are "jaywalking". Never once heard of police trying to shut this down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    The inability of policemen and policewomen the world over to use discretion is absolutely astounding. As far as this goes, what is the point in having a brain if you're just going to follow a rulebook to the letter? When discretion dies, fascism is born!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Jaywalking laws are not about safety! Just compare how many pedestrians per 1000 get hurt/killed here in the US compared to the likes of the UK that doesn't have any such laws. Big difference. The laws were campaigned for by the US motor car companies (see the $ at work again)in the 1920-30s so cars did not get the blame and hurt sales. Why should it be against the law to cross the road. Wake up!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Defense for Jaywalking charges:

    1) I am not a Jay (several species of the Family: Corvidae) of any sort or kind.

    2) I was not walking, I was jogging at the time and in this place.

    The Defense Rests.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    I remember my freshman year of college a girl got seriously injured when she was jogging listening to her headphones and ran right in front of a car

    Unfortantely people don't pay attention anymore to where they are going due to technology and it is very dangerous

    The police officer's choice of words was unfortunate but I think he was simply making a point that there really is no controversy

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I find the analogy between the pedestrian and the motorist quite irrelevant. Because, if a pedestrian is careless that pedestrian can easily cause an accident that will kill someone in the same way a driver would. That the woman was obviously inattentive and could have caused a fatal accident since she was oblivious to her environment. I wonder what the comments would be if that had happened

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    What great story.

    And @6. BK
    Please go and move to north korea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I walk 7 mi. everyday through downtown Portland, and I constantly have my head on a swivel, even at a cross-walk. Jaywalking is about safety more than anything, especially since about 1 in 5 people I see driving are on their phones. I don't care who is at fault, I don't want to get hit. To enforce it like they did in Austin is absurd, a warning is fine. This sounds more like police on a power trip

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The woman was running with headphones on. She crossed the street and when the police called her, she did not hear them. This is very typical of the me mindset. It's up to the rest of us to pay attention to what this woman is doing. She posed a risk not just to herself but others. To blame cars for speeding is a red herring since this was not the case. Instead she was being careless and rude.


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