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.