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.
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.