Austin Police Department and the Rule of Law

A closer examination of a recent jaywalking arrest shows that public safety and the rule of law should be taken more seriously.

By now, I suspect that most of Austin is familiar with Amanda Jo Stephen’s arrest on February 20. I also suspect that most who are familiar with the event support Stephen, and to a much greater extent, oppose APD’s actions and response. I feel compelled to make my position known, because those behind the uproar have unjustly vilified APD and incorrectly absolved Stephen. I think this debate so far has seriously been lacking in three areas: public safety, rule of law, and common sense.

This is first and foremost a matter of public safety. I cycle through West Campus every day, and jaywalking is a major safety hazard and a serious nuisance. There have been 96 pedestrian fatalities and 1,757 pedestrian related accidents in the last five years, according to Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo. I am surprised that the numbers are not higher. With the rise of distracting device usage while driving or walking, the potential for traffic accidents will likely increase. It is good that our City and Police department have and are continuing to address this issue.

During all of these jaywalking crackdowns, the smallest to the most egregious infractions are treated the same. Stephen was charged with “failure to obey a pedestrian control device,” which means she crossed an intersection during a red light. The idea is to create an incentive for all pedestrians not to disobey “pedestrian control devices,” especially in high-risk areas such as 24th Street. APD publicizes the crackdown, the media reports the number of citations, and if all goes according to plan, the risk of pedestrian accidents decreases. This is the goal of the policy. From this perspective, APD was simply acting in the interest of public safety.

Second, the treatment of Stephen is an example of the rule of law, not of police brutality or excessive force. There are times when civil disobedience is necessary, but resisting the enforcement of traffic law during a morning jog is a stretch. It would be nice if every citizen knew exactly how and when they or someone else is breaking the law, or when to civilly disobey, but we are not all justice system experts. No, we expect that police officers are sufficiently trained to handle situations where it is necessary and just to request identification. In short, once the officers determined that Stephen had broken the law, they had a duty to stop her and proceed with the rule of law.

The police officers asked Stephen to identify herself when she crossed the street illegally. She was wearing headphones, and could not hear the officer’s request. An officer then grabbed her arm, in order to alert her to the request. This is, presumably, where things began to spiral out of control. Stephen resisted complying with the police, and the rest is history.

This is where common sense enters. Stephen should have turned around and paid attention to what the police had to say. She broke the law. The fact that she was jogging, wearing headphones, or carried no identification has no bearing on her guilt or innocence. Would there be outrage if Stephen did not raise her voice and instead complied with the police? If she did not raise her voice, would a passersby have shared the ordeal with the Internet? Would the sight of a police officer calmly giving a ticket to a compliant person have caused such an uproar? I believe not.

Let us move on to the question of why this incident caused such a stir. I believe it was instigated by extensive social media presence. I also believe that most people have chosen to base their opinions primarily on the video and their previous prejudices against APD. After nearly three weeks, the video has received more than 600,000 views on Youtube. The video shows a young woman being apprehended by APD, and she proclaims that she just crossed the street and did nothing wrong.

Now, if we only watched the video, and only formed our opinions based on Stephen’s in-the-moment testimony, we would certainly conclude that APD are acting unjustly and we must therefore denounce their actions. But this is an incredibly shortsighted way to perceive the situation.

Finally, I believe that tolerating negative public reaction to events like the Stephen arrest makes justified law enforcement more difficult. We must not condone Stephen’s behavior during her arrest. If we do, then we risk condoning future incidents where people perceive the rule of law and a sincere interest in public safety as an excessive use of force.

I understand that APD has a history of excessive force, racial discrimination, and probably other horrible things that we might not be aware of. Nevertheless, the Stephen incident is certainly none of these things. We must be sufficiently aware as a citizenry to distinguish between the rule of law and injustice.

Photo Credit: Chris Quintero | Daily Texan Contributor

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