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.

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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
    +12

    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
    +11

    Comment number 44.

    Having worked with many police officers, I have come to the conclusion that the most serious offense is showing a bad attitude. No matter how minor the initial offense, failure to show the officer the respect he thinks he is entitled to (and may not get anywhere else) is a major offense and will almost always lead to some degree of overreaction by the officer.

  • rate this
    +9

    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
    +7

    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
    +7

    Comment number 77.

    From Departed (the movie): "... Do you wanna be a cop, or do you wanna appear to be a cop? It's an honest question. Lot of guys want to appear to be cops. A gun, badge, pretend they're on TV. There is no one more full of shisssh than a cop. Except for a cop on TV." Maybe US TV should stop glorifying the "US-cop" attitude so the young cadets learn to respect their citizen than bullying them...

 

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