Felipe Fernandez-Armesto: Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial calls arrest troubling





Other than librarians, it's hard to imagine a less rambunctious group than historians. Yet, one of the world's premier historians ended up in jail during last week's American Historical Association convention in downtown Atlanta.

It was not an academic debate gone amok that sparked the arrest of British historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto. It was jaywalking.

The arrest prompted a letter of protest from the historical association; a photo posted on the Internet shows the slight, bespectacled professor on the ground surrounded by seven uniformed police officers. (Police held him for eight hours before he was released.)

Depending on which version you believe, the story is either about a pompous professor or a power-mad cop. But the episode was probably more complex than either of those views would suggest.

According to a police report, the 56-year-old Tufts University professor attempted to dart across Courtland Street around noon on Jan. 4. An off-duty Atlanta police officer — employed by the Hilton Hotel — instructed Fernandez-Armesto to use the crosswalk down the block. The Hilton had hired Officer Kevin Leonpacher to direct hotel guests to crosswalks because of concerns for pedestrian safety.

The two sides agree that the mess began when Leonpacher told the professor to stop jaywalking and use the crosswalk. The scholar portrays himself as a puzzled foreigner, unaware that jaywalking was illegal or that the man ordering him to stop was a police officer. Leonpacher points out that his jacket, part of the official Atlanta police uniform, bore the name Atlanta Police Department. Two witnesses cited in the police report — a Hilton doorman and another historian — say that Fernandez-Armesto ignored the officer's repeated requests to stop and that the officer was polite in asking the professor for ID.

Still, it's troubling that a respected historian ended up spending hours in an Atlanta jail for an offense that is common in downtown Atlanta. The incident has bruised Atlanta's reputation as a convention-friendly city known for Southern hospitality.

No one disputes that the officer had the authority to handcuff and subdue the historian, but did he have sufficient reason to do so? That ought to be a chief focus of the APD review. Moreover, Police Chief Richard Pennington might tell his subordinates that they could better protect against jaywalking pedestrians by erecting security barricades along sidewalks. Their solid-steel presence commands obedience to street-crossing directives.


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