Amanda Jo Stephen

In February, the UT community was collectively outraged when Austin police arrested a young woman after she jaywalked near campus. Amanda Jo Stephen — a petite 24-year-old with blonde pigtails who fits the very “definition of non-threatening,” as Texas Monthly put it — was jogging with earphones in, and couldn’t hear the officers when they yelled at her to stop. An officer then startled Stephen by grabbing her arm, and before long she was pinned to the ground and in handcuffs. Four other officers quickly arrived on the scene, shoved the young woman into the back of a cop car and hauled her off to the Travis County Jail, where she was booked for “failure to identify” and “failure to obey a pedestrian control device.”

The public outcry over Stephen’s arrest was swift and severe, and APD chief Art Acevedo’s response to the controversy was widely criticized. But while many people were surprised and shocked by what happened, I wasn’t.

In many ways, I am Amanda Jo Stephen. I am a 22-year-old UT student with (hopefully) a bright future ahead of me, and no criminal record behind me — that is, until I was arrested last September for “interference with public duties.” And just as in Stephen’s case, I committed no arrestable offense until my interaction with the police. I was at an apartment party in a small Texas college town, celebrating my girlfriend’s 21st birthday, when the cops came knocking at the door to investigate a noise complaint. At the time, I had just finished a summer internship with the ACLU, so I had Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure rights fresh on my mind: I refused to let the cops in without a search warrant. And as you might expect, the officers did not take too kindly to a smug lecture from a pain-in-the-ass wannabe law student. Things quickly escalated into a shouting match, and before I knew it, I too found myself in the back of a cop car and on my way to jail.

All that’s to say, this isn’t just about what happened to Stephen; her arrest for giving the cops a hard time was hardly an isolated incident.

Admittedly, I was a jerk to those cops. I’m not trying to condone disrespecting the police, as it’s clear that Stephen was doing — the video of the Stephen incident showed her kicking, screaming and dropping f-bombs as the officers struggled to place her under arrest. Some people are even suggesting that Stephen deliberately jaywalked in front of the cops in protest of an APD “pedestrian enforcement” sting, and Acevedo claimed that she “did the limp routine” just to be difficult. But while we need to treat police officers with respect — at least I learned a valuable lesson through the ordeal — we should be skeptical of these kinds of arrests. Her story and mine are both poignant instances of young people thrown into the criminal justice system simply because they took an attitude when interacting with a police officer. And as both stories seem to illustrate, if you piss off a cop, you could likely find yourself in jail, facing misdemeanor charges that will follow you for the rest of your life.

Although the media often reports on these types of arrests, there is seldom any coverage of the subsequent process of bonding out of jail, facing prosecution, plea-bargaining, paying fines, being on probation and then dealing with the consequences of having a criminal record — no matter how minor — for life. Local newspapers covered my incident, and despite my case being disposed — and my record soon to be wiped clean — those articles will be online and freely available to any potential employers for all of googleable eternity.

A low-level misdemeanor like “failure to identify” or “interference with public duties” can cost thousands of dollars and take a huge toll on a young person and her family through court costs, fines, attorney fees and lost job opportunities, among the many other disadvantages that come with having a criminal record. Is it right to do this to someone who hasn’t truly committed a crime other than disrespecting an officer?

According to Acevedo, Stephen was arrested and charged not because she jaywalked, but because she refused to identify herself or cooperate with the officer who detained her for crossing the street against the light. And while there is a statue on the books that makes it a crime to refuse to give your name to a cop if you’re under arrest, we need to think long and hard about spending resources on this type of policing. Officers should have — and indeed do have — discretion in making arrests, and they should exercise it to enforce more than just the strict “letter of the law.” Is it necessary to toss young people like Stephen or myself into an arguably broken judicial system that is already fraught with problems? The criminal justice system is entirely overburdened by low-level misdemeanor cases, so we need to be careful with what scarce resources we have; arresting young people for “contempt of cop” hardly constitutes a good use of those resources.

Ultimately, controversies like these only hurt relations between police and the public that officers are sworn to protect. And as Austin continues to grow — according to Forbes, it is the fastest-growing city in America — crime and safety will continue to be a pressing concern. APD needs to focus its efforts in the right places, not on protecting officers’ egos by arresting disrespectful jaywalkers. Police should learn from the public outcry over what happened in February and work to foster a better relationship with the public — which includes exercising the discretion to not arrest young people without due cause.

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Nikolaides started at the Texan in the spring of 2013. He spent two semesters working as an opinion columnist and served this semester as an associate editor.

Please let Amanda Jo Stephen know that the “real men” of the state of Texas have been acting on her behalf for much of the day, and this effort will continue until what was wrong is made right. We do not allow our citizens in Texas to be treated in this manner, and especially our women. I’m 54 years old, and I’m old school, and believe in the code of the West. Part of that code is that men respect women, and treat them right, or suffer consequences. The police chief of Austin has made comments likened to that of a Gestapo leader, and the officers behaved like we are in a communist police state. And that pitiful attempt at an apology, and the excuses, will not suffice. APOLOGY NOT ACCEPTED! They have embarrassed my homeland, Texas, the state I was born in, and they have humiliated her on a world level. They’ve done a woman wrong, and it won’t stand. If all involved will look Amanda in the eye and apologize from the heart, on camera, I’ll try to call off what is being organized. No written apologies read to a camera will do. The chief and his officers will humble themselves, or face the wrath of the men of the great state of Texas. And this is MY BUSINESS because you’ve brought this shame on Texas, and I CANNOT let the world think that the men of Texas don’t have the courage and backbone to set this right. Please tell her that. The chief says the public has overreacted. He has no clue as to what that looks like. The wrath of the men of Texas is starting to build, and it’s coming his way. And we are the type of men who aren’t afraid. Every senator, representative and the governor will be in on this before it’s over. And if we have to actually come to Austin, the chief won’t have enough resources to put down the protest, and there won’t be enough jail cells, or prosecutors and courts to handle what will happen if the chief tries to stop it. Yes, Amanda, the real men are coming.

—Don Hanson, submitted via email 

 

Where is the common sense in the Austin, Texas, police department? Do they really think that “protect and serve” means aggressively manhandle and cuff a jaywalker or a jogger with earphones who doesn’t readily identify herself? What have they got for brains? How can we give weapons to people with such poor judgement? Imagine how easily that woman could have been seriously injured because of overzealous, unintelligent and foolish overreaction by untrained or misguided policemen? This is really scary, and the people of Austin, Texas, should not tolerate such abuse and misuse of power.

—Maureen Healy, submitted via email

 

The University has announced that next year it will cut the Texas Memorial Museum budget by $600,000, essentially putting it out of business. At the same time, with little publicity, the University has taken over the financially troubled Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. The wildflower center started as a modest farm in East Austin designed to honor Lady Bird by providing free seeds for highway beautification, one of Lady Bird’s favorite projects. Then the center changed focus, moved to Circle C and got in trouble. Now it is an architecturally interesting suburban garden center and arboretum with a $9 entry fee, worth a visit, but it primarily serves an audience of middle-class, middle-aged people like me. The Texas Memorial Museum serves school kids who pile out of buses and seem truly impressed to meet their first dinosaur. Over the years I’ve met a number of UT students from poor backgrounds whose introduction to UT was the museum; without it they might not be here. It says something for the priorities of the administration — and those who pressure it — that the museum serving average kids is being defunded while the middle class memorial garden is being supported. So, before it goes, you should take a look at the museum. Say goodbye to the 40-foot West Texas reptile flying over the gems in the great hall. Then go down a floor and check out the slightly tatty display of Texas wildlife, especially the hungry-looking snakes. Finally in the basement say goodbye to the 30-foot–long Onion Creek monster and the huge fossil armadillo. They quietly sit there reminding us that evolution happened, that 10 million years isn’t really that long and that a C on the midterm isn’t the end of the world.

—David Miller, submitted via email

According to law professor David Gonzalez, the jogger who was arrested Thursday for failing to identify herself after being stopped for jaywalking could have avoided arrest by being more cooperative.

Austin police officers detained Amanda Jo Stephen, 24, after seeing her disregard a pedestrian traffic signal at the intersection of 24th and San Antonio streets. Once stopped, Stephen refused to identify herself to the officers, who then arrested her.

“She had already committed an arrestable offense when she failed to obey traffic laws,” APD spokeswoman Veneza Bremner said.

According to Gonzalez, in most cases, withholding one’s name, residential address or date of birth only causes unnecessary tension with police. If one has not been detained or arrested, it is legal to withhold information, but Gonzalez said he discourages it.

“It’s never OK,” Gonzalez said. “If you are stopped, even if you did nothing wrong, a police officer has the right to ask you for your name, your residence address and your date of birth. There’s nothing illegal or incriminating about giving that information.”

“There is an argument of, ‘Well, I was illegally detained, so I don’t have to give it to the officer because I haven’t been legally detained,’” Gonzalez said. “But, in general, it’s bad practice. Asking for your name isn’t really considered an interrogation.”

In Stephen’s case, Gonzalez said officers would not have gone through with the arrest if her name had been provided.

“The reality is that, if she didn’t go limp, they would’ve given her a ticket, and that’s all there is to it — but, once she went limp and wouldn’t identify herself, they escalated it,” Gonzalez said.

Jaywalking alone is an arrestable offense, according to Gonzalez.

“It is confusing because it is typically a ticket,” Gonzalez said. “In Texas, other than speeding or having [an] open container of alcohol, every other thing is an arrestable offense, and it’s the police officer’s discretion as to whether to arrest you or to give you a ticket.”

Gonzalez said the best course of action for Stephen would have been to fight the arrest in court rather than on the street.

“Judges do not want people fighting with police officers on the street about whether it’s a lawful search or a lawful arrest,” Gonzalez said. “If you have a question, ask for a lawyer, follow what the police’s instructions are, say, ‘I want to have a lawyer. I don’t want to consent to anything,’ and then go to court and fight it out like civilized people. What they don’t want are people making those decisions on the street. It just aggravates things.”

Undeclared freshman Claire Matlock said she thinks jaywalking should not be an arrestable offense.

“It’s not as serious as other crimes that people are arrested for. It’s such a petty thing,” Matlock said.

Pre-public relations freshman Marisa Ballard said she thought the most severe punishment for jaywalking would be a citation.

“I think jaywalking is something that every college student does,” Ballard said. “I’m not planning on jaywalking on the Drag anytime soon.”

Photo Credit: Chris Quintero | Daily Texan Contributor

Last Thursday at 10:45 a.m., a 24-year-old woman named Amanda Jo Stephen was arrested at the intersection of 24th and San Antonio streets for, as she screamed during her arrest, “crossing the street.” The actual reason for the arrest was more complicated — Stephen was formally charged with “failure to identify” and “failure to obey a pedestrian control device” and was approached by the police as part of an APD effort to reduce traffic violations by drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. Stephen, who had her headphones in and was jogging at the time of the event, did not respond to the officer attempting to get her attention. The officer, in response, grabbed her by the arm. Once arrested, Stephen began to yell and attempt to stand up. The cops, meanwhile, kept her pinned to the ground. 

Stephen continued to yell, refused to identify herself and was arrested and placed into a nearby police cruiser. A video of the event quickly went viral. The public reaction to the incident was swift, negative and complex, with people upset about the roughness of the cops, helplessness of the arrestee and absurdity of the charge. 

The response by Police Chief Art Acevedo, in contrast, was as simple-minded as it gets. 

“In other cities there’s cops who are actually committing sexual assaults on duty, so I thank God that this is what passes for a controversy in Austin, Texas,” Acevedo said in a press conference about the arrest Thursday. 

Acevedo has since apologized for his comments, or at least for using what he described as “a poor analogy” that “attempted to place the arrest into context.” But his initial response to the public outrage at the treatment of Stephen betrays a dangerous willingness to ignore both public opinion and an unnecessary invasion of a woman’s rights. Acevedo, disturbingly, has yet to address his many other alarming comments about the event. 

Initially, Acevedo didn’t just give the officers involved credit for not sexually assaulting the citizen they were arresting. He also openly stated that he would have been less lenient with the woman had he been the arresting officer. 

“Quite frankly, she wasn’t charged with resisting, and she was lucky I wasn’t the arresting officer because I wouldn’t have been quite as generous,” Acevedo said. 

Why Acevedo would congratulate his officers for refraining from sexually assaulting someone while simultaneously saying that he would have been less lenient is beyond our comprehension. Then again, Acevedo said himself that he is unconcerned with the public’s opinion of his officers. 

“I’d rather have everybody angry at me and my officers than to see a young person lose their life needlessly,” Acevedo said, referring to the 96 pedestrian fatalities that have occurred in Austin in the last five years. 

We, for one, would rather see a police department that’s interested in fostering public awareness of safety issues through a mechanism other than instilling fear in the people they’re supposed to assist.

It’s true that by not offering her name once detained, Stephen violated the “letter of the law,” and the officers were within their right to enforce the rules.

But officers should have the discretion to enforce the spirit of the law, not just the strict text of it. Stephen, likely, posed no threat to public safety, and, because she failed to treat a police officer with the decorum that he considered necessary, she was arrested and is now being thrown into the criminal justice system. Acevedo only hurt the situation, and the public’s trust in the police, by making comments that were overly aggressive, overly deferential to the arresting officers and completely unwilling to consider the possibility that the arrest may have been inappropriate. Acevedo has issued his apology, and Stephen has been released from jail. But APD has a long way to go before it can regain the public’s trust. For that to happen, Acevedo must learn to treat public concerns as more than frustrated citizens to be cuffed and quieted.

Photo Credit: Chris Quintero | Daily Texan Contributor

Updated (8:35 p.m. Saturday): Austin police chief Art Acevedo apologized for a comment he made during a press conference regarding the arrest of Amanda Jo Stephen, who was arrested Thursday after crossing the intersection of 24th and San Antonio streets.

In the press conference Friday, Acevedo said the public had overreacted to the incident.

"In other cities there's cops who are actually committing sexual assaults on duty, so I thank God that this is what passes for a controversy in Austin, Texas," Acevedo said.

Acevedo said his comments were the result of a strenuous week for the department.   

"I attempted to place the arrest into context by bringing attention to the fact that law enforcement deals with many acts of serious misconduct," Acevedo said. "In hindsight I believe the comparison was a poor analogy, and for this I apologize."

Updated (6:45 p.m. Friday): At a press conference held Friday, APD police chief Art Acevedo addressed the recent arrest of 24-year-old Amanda Jo Stephen, who was taken into custody Thursday after crossing an intersection at a red light. Stephen was formally charged with “failure to identify” and “failure to obey a pedestrian control device” and was released from Travis County Central Booking Thursday evening.

Acevedo said the arrest occured in the midst of a West/North Campus traffic initiative which began Feb. 1. Acevedo said the initiative’s purpose is to reduce the number of traffic violations made by drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians.

According to Acevedo, 28 pedestrians were stopped and seven citations were issued specifically for disregarding pedestrian control devices Thursday.

“Our goal is to change behavior, and not necessarily to write tickets or take people to jail,” Acevedo said. “This week, we’re actually focusing on pedestrian violations. The initiative will continue for some upcoming weeks, utilizing the resources of district representatives.”

According to Acevedo, there have been 96 deaths related to pedestrian-involved incidents and 1,757 pedestrians injured in traffic crashes in in the past five years.

“I’d rather have everybody angry at me and my officers, then to see a young person lose their life needlessly,” Acevedo said. “I’d rather be up here talking about this, than going to our 97th fatality involving a pedestrian or 1800th injury involving a pedestrian.”

When arresting Stephen, officers took the appropriate actions, Acevedo said.

“I don’t buy that you can’t hear an officer yelling at you to stop,” Acevedo said. “I’ll give the benefit of the doubt initially, but when the officer is right by you and can see the hat and he’s looking at your face, you should be able to know what’s going on.”

Acevedo said Stephen disregarded the officer’s lawful request for her to identify herself and verbally resisted the arrest.

“All that young lady had to do when she was asked for her information was to provide it by law, “ Acevedo said. “Instead of doing that, she decided to throw [herself] to the ground – officers didn’t sit her down – and she did the limp routine.”

According to Acevedo, Stephen was handcuffed after telling the officer not to touch her. Acevedo said the public outcry following the arrest did not faze him.

“Thank you lord that it’s a controversy in Austin, Texas that we actually have the audacity to touch somebody by the arm and tell them ‘oh my goodness, Austin Police, we’re trying to get your attention,’” Acevedo said. “Quite frankly, she wasn’t charged with resisting, and she was lucky I wasn’t the arresting officer because I wouldn’t have been quite as generous.”

Original Story (Thursday): City police officers arrested a woman around 10:45 a.m. Thursday for failing to provide identification after she was stopped near the intersection of 24th and San Antonio, outside Big Bite Pizza and Grill.

Advertising senior Chris Quintero, who witnessed the arrest, said Austin Police Department officers were working at the intersection when the woman jogged across the block.

“I was sitting at the Starbucks at 24th and San Antonio,” Quintero said. “Then I hear a cop shout at an innocent girl jogging through West Campus with her headphones on.”

When the woman did not stop, the officer grabbed her by the arm and quickly placed her in handcuffs, Quintero said.

“She repeatedly pleaded with them, saying that she was just exercising and to let her go,” Quintero said.

In footage of the incident that Quintero filmed, the woman can be seen attempting to get up from the ground and being kept down by police officers. 

“I was doing nothing wrong,” the woman said from her position sitting on the sidewalk. “I was crossing the street.” 

When police escorted the woman into the police car, she began shouting and eventually shrieking unintelligibly. 

“I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t do anything wrong,” she said. “I didn’t fucking do anything wrong. I just crossed the street.”

Quintero said two additional officers on bicycles arrived on the scene to assist with the arrest. In footage, the officers can be seen working together to secure the woman in the back of the police car.  According to APD spokeswoman Lisa Cortinas, APD officers do not target jaywalking specifically, instead they focus on pedestrian and bike safety overall. 

“District representatives were working pedestrian enforcement at 24th Street and Guadalupe,” Cortinas said. “[In this case], the call is titled failure to identify.”

APD spokeswoman Veneza Bremner said as far as she was aware, there was no concerted effort Thursday to ticket jaywalkers.

“I don’t think there’s any initiative going on out there, but [APD officers] can go write tickets whenever they see a problem out there,” Bremner said.

Bremner said officers occasionally patrol the area even when they have not been called to address a specific crime. 

“I’m not sure how often they do it, but I do know that they’re out there every now and then doing that,” Bremner said. “Whenever the call load allows, they’re proactively out there.”