Atlanta police stand by officer's treatment of jaywalking historian

Andy McSmith
London Independent
Friday July 6, 2007

An eminent British historian who was arrested in Atlanta after a heated set-to with police has vowed to clear his name although an investigation has failed to prove his version of events.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto provoked the ire of a police officer in January when he tried to cross the road in the wrong place - a crime known as jaywalking. He claims he was roughed up by the officer; the officerinsists it was the academic who acted with belligerence.

Yesterday, an internal investigation by the city's police department concluded that Professor Armesto's arrest was entirely justifed and that his account of police manhandling was unfounded. But the lecturer and writer vowed to prove them wrong. "My goodwill is not inexhaustible, I'm not going to let this go," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The academic is professor of global environmental history at Queen Mary, University of London, and the author of about 20 books. But he seems destined to go down in history as the man who tried to cross the road between the Hilton and Hyatt hotels in Atlanta, while he was in town for a conference of the History News Network.

What the professor did not know was that jaywalking is an offence in Georgia. When the young man in a bomber jacket told him that he should not cross at that point, the professor took his words as advice, and ignored it.

In fact, he had been addressed by 28-year-old Kevin Leonpacher, a police officer, who interpreted the act as deliberate defiance of the law. Before the professor - who had never previously had so much as a parking ticket - had fully grasped what was happening, he had been thrown to the ground, handcuffed, and arrested.

He later claimed that several policemen pressed hard on his neck and chest, leaving him bruised and in pain, not to mention bewildered and outraged.

In the city detention centre, he was locked in a "filthy" cell with other felons for eight hours. Officials demanded bail of more than £500. To find the money, he had to strike a deal with a bail bondsman.

When the case came to court, an embarrassed prosecutor accepted that a man in a bomber jacket might not look to a visiting European like a police officer. He suggested a plea of nolo contendere (no contest) but Professor Fernandez-Armesto feared a stain on his record might put his green card in jeopardy. Eventually, all charges were dropped.

But now an internal investigation by the Atlanta Police has backed Officer Leonpacher. A police spokeswoman, Judy Pal, pointed out that Professor Fernandez-Armesto was not arrested for jaywalking but for disobeying a lawful order from an officer. The police interviewed witnesses, including two civilians, who backed the officer's version of events. They accused the professor of being belligerent.

Professor Fernandez-Armesto dismissed the investigation as "profoundly incompetent" and said the investigators never sought his side of the story. He still bears scars on his head from the scuffle. He said he may sue.

Rick Shenkman, editor of the History News Network, said that throughout the conference there were complaints about police harassing pedestrians.

Another participant, Monica Ricketts, a PhD student at Harvard University, said she was accosted by an officer while crossing the street at the same spot. "He started yelling at us, blowing a whistle as we were crossing the street. He got in my face and was pointing his finger at me. It was so bizarre," she said.

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