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 146.

    In the US crosswalks are ignored. The US law enforcement in cities do not spend a lot of time in crime prevention normally they just show up to the scene. The accident police an extension of the lawyers who get info on accidents suing drivers. Under the freedom of excuse in the US for lawyers to continue frivolous suites for supposed whip lash. Studies shown negligible in 99%

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    Peter Birch is right! The USA IS a useless country! They should have just stayed out of WWI and WWII and just let all of Europe and Southeast Asia be taken over by the Nazis and Japan!

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    For a country that claims to be the land of the free - turn out to be the land of the complete morons - If she had been robbing a car, mugging another walker or anything else remotely dangerous they would have had all those brave police officers wearing full armour with weapons - What a useless country the USA proves to be oyet again - Oh did he arrest anyone involved in the WORLD BANK ROBBERY?

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    'Banker syndrome' . . When you criticize someone for a particular behaviour, the mentally immature among them indulge more in that behaviour . . whether it be narcissistic, teenage girl obnoxiousness or Nazi police 'jobsworths'

    Rivalry exists between emergency services in the US. A video on Youtube of a paramedic being arrested in the process of driving a heart attack victim to ER.

    Very mature

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    Mr Acevedo is obviously referring to "our police problem" here in San Diego. There is now an opening in San Diego for the Chief of Police position. Maybe Mr Acevedo would like to apply. The pay is really good and the benefits are REALLY great ;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    i do this everyday it s wrong to arrest people for that ,, it s not even a crime

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    jaywalking means walking/running off a pedestrian path without being aware of traffic - it is stupid an if an accident occurs the jaywalker SHOULD be prosecuted. Wearing headphones does not necessarily mean she was unaware of traffic but is, in general (e.g. on a bike) a bit stupid in many instances as it reduces awareness.

    But, shinypurlestuff +1 and Keithr +1

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    This is a tax on crossing the road.

    You should be able to counter-sue for wasting the publics time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    Another American (the late Robert Heinlein): "There is only one capital crime in the universe and it's called stupidity. The sentence is death .. no appeal... and is carried out automatically ..."
    Running in front of a car wearing earphones definitely qualifies. She's alive and she should be thankful the police took the trouble to keep her that way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    I don't know about drivers intimidating pedestrians but last year there was a fashion by young people in my town to walk slowly and deliberately into the path of a moving car until it stopped, then look around at their mates for acknowledgement of how hard they are and saunter off.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    "And there clearly are valid reasons why a stopped individual should provide identification and co-operate with authorities."

    Yes, however, in many of the states, you are not in fact required to show ID unless you are under arrest, in which case she was detained under false pretenses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    Hey we are talking about the Republic of Texas here! There is a chance that when she is found guilty that she will be executed. If she is lucky she will only get life.

    It is kind of funny that if she spent one day in jail that that would be more jail time than anyone who caused the financial crises in 2007 did.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    As a British person who lived in Metro Detroit for many years, I have to say that, in my experience, motorists in the USA are far more respectful to pedestrians than those in the UK. While a car driver in England would intimidate any pedestrian crossing their path, Michigan drivers wait patiently while pedestrians amble across the car park or street in front of them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    Texas is one of the few states where the pedestrian does NOT automatically have the right of way while in a crosswalk. Of all the states where I have ever lived, it is the most driver-centric and one might even say anti-pedestrian. I know someone who was hit by a car while crossing a street...after having been checked out to make sure he was ok, he was handed a ticket for jaywalking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    The land of the free!

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    Austen Police Chief apologized for his choice of "defense" re officer' behavior, but the entire incident speaks negatively about law & order within the United States. I agree with # 129 - if this person had been black, she may never have lived to post bond, & the entire incident would have been whitewashed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    to rob dahling

    mcdondals had been ordered to reduce the temperature on many occasion before the lawsuit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    If the person in question happened to be black and male, he'd have been shot dead for "resisting arrest". Weapons, drugs and doubtless a bag marked "SWAG" would have been found on him.

    Furthermore, it would not have been news, so we'd never have heard of it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    @86 readwriteandblue

    First, calling me a numbskull doesn't validate your argument. It's not an issue of who will run her over, it's her obliviousness to her surroundings - if she looks, evaluates and dismisses uniformed police calling to her, then she deserves what she got all the more.

    As for sovereign immunity - in the land where people sue because they burn themselves with hot coffee ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    Texas Pigs!


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