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Historian 'pinned to ground by US police and beaten for jaywalking'

London Telegraph | January 11, 2007 
Laura Clout

A distinguished British historian claims he was knocked to the ground by an American policeman before being arrested and spending eight hours in jail because he crossed the road in the wrong place.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto said he had been the victim of "terrible, terrible violence" after he inadvertently committed the offence of "jaywalking" in Atlanta, Georgia, last week and failed to realise the man telling him to stop was an officer.

The slight, bespectacled professor claimed that five burly officers pinned him to the ground after Kevin Leonpacher kicked his legs from under him as he hesitated to show his ID.

He was left "traumatised and disorientated" and with a gashed forehead as he was taken to the local jail and charged with pedestrian failure to obey a police officer and physical obstruction of police.

The academic, professor of global environmental history at Queen Mary College, University of London, and a member of Oxford University's modern history faculty, said he had been subjected to "very humiliating procedures" and even had his box of peppermints confiscated.

The 56-year-old appeared in court the next day, "tortured" by the fear of getting a criminal record that would wreck his chances of getting a green card allowing him to work in America. But prosecutors dropped the charges.

Atlanta's police chief ordered an inquiry after the mayor raised the incident.

Prof Fernandez-Armesto, who is also a member of the history department at Tufts University, Massachusetts, was in Atlanta for the convention of the American Historical Association. He said he was crossing the road and became aware of a "rather intrusive young man shouting at me telling me that I shouldn't have crossed the road there".

Because he was wearing a "rather louche" bomber jacket that covered his uniform, the professor did not realise he was a policeman.

"I thanked him for his advice and went on," said the professor. When Officer Leonpacher tried to stop him and demanded to see identification, the professor asked to see his, which he "didn't take kindly to". "He said 'I am going to arrest you'," Prof Fernandez-Armesto said. "In the culture I come from this wouldn't mean that the conversation was over.

"Nor would it mean that you were about to be subjected to terrible, terrible violence. This young man kicked my legs from under me, wrenched me round in what I think is a sort of a judo move, pinned me to the ground, wrenched my arms behind my back and handcuffed me.

"Naturally I was bridling at this moment and he called his colleagues to his assistance. I had five burly policemen pinioning me to the ground, pressing my neck with really very severe pain. I'm a mass of contusions and grazes.

"I was traumatised, disorientated, my conference programme was in the gutter and I was begging them to give it back to me and to give me my spectacles back," he said. "I still find it incredible that an ageing, mild-mannered professor of impeccable antecedent, should be the subject of such abominable treatment."

The professor, who has written books on the Americas and global exploration, was handcuffed to another suspected criminal in a "filthy, foetid paddy wagon" to be transported to jail and had his fingerprints and mugshot taken. With his bail set at £720 but with no way to get the cash, Prof Fernandez-Armesto remained incarcerated, until he eventually got out with the help of a professional bail agent.

In court the following day he explained to the judge and charges were dropped.

Officer Leonpacher denied that he overreacted, saying the historian repeatedly refused to co-operate. The 28-year-old told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "I used an excessive amount of discretion."

Atlanta's mayor, Shirley Franklin, said: "We want everyone who visits Atlanta to find Atlanta to be friendly and helpful."

The professor said he had no plans to sue, adding: "It was actually a fantastic experience going into that detention centre and spending time with those miserable wretches of the earth. I feel I've learnt more than I would have in important sessions of the Historical Association."


Officer who cuffed Tufts professor for jaywalking defends actions

Associated Press | January 10, 2007

ATLANTA - The Atlanta police officer who arrested a Tufts University professor for jaywalking has contradicted the man’s account, insisting he was in uniform at the time and saying the professor has no one to blame but himself.

Officer Kevin Leonpacher said if anything, “I used an excessive amount of discretion,” in the encounter that landed Felipe Fernandez-Armesto in jail.
Fernandez-Armesto, 56, who was arrested Jan. 4, said earlier in an interview that he was assaulted while crossing the street by a man he did not realize was a police officer.

“Where I’m from, you don’t associate young gentlemen in bomber jackets with the police. But he was extremely upset I had questioned his bona fides,” recalled Fernandez-Armesto, a prominent British historian and former professor at Oxford. He was visiting Atlanta for a history convention.

But Leonpacher said he asked Fernandez-Armesto why he didn’t follow the instructions of a uniformed officer, and the author shrugged him off and walked away.

“I told him, it’s gonna be awful silly if I have to take you to jail for jaywalking,” said Leonpacher, 28. He said he could not handcuff the professor by himself.
“He was swinging, kicking wildly,” Leonpacher said, adding that backup officers arrived almost immediately. In the incident report, he quoted the professor as saying, “Well now I believe that you are the police.”

Atlanta police had said that the disorderly conduct charge against Fernandez-Armesto was subsequently dropped. Later they said charge wasn’t officially dropped, and could be brought again, but that would be unlikely. For now, his record will show only an arrest.

Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin said she has asked police chief Richard Pennington to look into the incident.

Leonpacher says he was a good representative for the city. He was working a part-time job that day - with police consent, his superiors confirmed - for the Hilton Hotel, trying to direct pedestrians to use crosswalks.

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