Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Thin Blue Line . . . in Atlanta

"I like to think of myself as the ultimate anti-postmodernist post-modernist. Notwithstanding the unusual narrative or visual devices that appear in many of the films, what has kept me going for the three years of investigating for The Thin Blue Line, was the belief that there are answers to questions such as, Adams did it, didn't he? Or Harris did it, didn't he? That it's not just up for grabs. Today, I believe there's a kind of frisson of ambiguity. People think that ambiguity is somehow wonderful in its own right, an excuse for failing to investigate. What can I say? I think this view is wrong. At best, misguided. Maybe even reprehensible."
-Filmaker Errol Morris

In 1976, Dallas police officer Robert Wood was killed during a routine traffic stop. With no immediate suspect in sight, the Dallas police department soon found itself under intense and growing pressure to solve the murder. Several weeks later, Randall Dale Adams was arrested for the killing.

Adams, a construction laborer recently arrived in Dallas, had run out of gas one morning on the way to a job site. While searching on foot for a gas station, he was offered a ride by David Harris, a 16 year old runaway from Vidor Texas, with whom he ultimately spent the remainder of the day drinking beer, smoking marijuana, taking in a double feature at a drive-in theater, and aimlessly driving around. Later that night, Officer Wood pulled over a blue Mercury Comet in order to inform the driver that his rear taillight was out. Not realizing that the car was stolen, Officer Wood casually approached the car, while his partner failed to position herself correctly outside the police cruiser. When officer Wood reached the driver's window, he was shot several times by a small caliber handgun, and the car sped away.

These events were chronicled in Errol Morris' award winning 1998 documentary, The Thin Blue Line, which has been described as "the first movie mystery to actually solve a murder." This film examines, from multiple perspectives, the sequence of events leading up to the conviction and sentencing of Randall Dale Adams. On one level, The Thin Blue Line is a documentary examining the dubious procedures of the criminal justice system. More fundamentally, the film explores the construction of narratives by which we create a sense of truth.

Now, anyone unfortunate enough to have been subjected to the doctrines of post-modernism will recognize my failure in the previous sentence to put the requisite quotation marks around the word "truth." But Errol Morris is, as he puts it, no post-modernist, and maintains an admirably steadfast respect both for the difficulties inherent in unearthing the truth, and the essential human obligation to try. In short, the truth my be difficult to come by. Which is not to say that it doesn't exist.

Morris' film has inextricably woven itself into my understanding of events unfolding over the past week in my hometown of Atlanta, for it highlights the subtle shift from allegation to "fact."

On January 4, Professor Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, a distinguished British historian currently teaching at Tufts University, was attending an academic convention in Atlanta. During his attempt to cross Peachtree Street, the main thoroughfare in downtown Atlanta, he was repeatedly and vocally urged by Officer Kevin Leonpacher to use the nearest crosswalk. Dr. Fernandez-Armesto maintains that he did not realize that Leonpacher was a police officer, thought Leonpacher was simply making a suggestion, and continued across the street. There, the stories begin to diverge.

According to Fernandez-Armesto, he was "subjected to very humiliating procedure." What interests me in this apparently trivial case is the changing shape and tone of its coverage over location and time. According to the first account in Britain's The Daily Mail:

Because Officer Leonpacher was wearing a “rather louche” bomber jacket that covered his uniform, the professor said he did not realise he was from the police department. He said: “All I was aware of was a rather intrusive young man shouting at me telling me that I shouldn’t have crossed the road there.“I thanked him for his advice and went on.” When Officer Leonpacher then tried to stop him and demanded to see identification, Professor Fernandez-Armesto asked to see the policeman’s own ID, which he “didn’t take kindly to”. At this point, still not realising he had done anything wrong and wondering whether any of the identification on him would be suitable, he said the officer lost patience.“He said ‘I am going to arrest you’,” Professor 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, handcuffed me. I had five burly policemen pinioning me to the ground, pressing my neck with really very severe pain.”

As you might expect, Officer Leonpacher's account, published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was somewhat different:

Leonpacher said the professor repeatedly refused to cooperate when asked why he did not heed the officer's instructions."I told him, it's gonna be awful silly if I have to take you to jail for jaywalking . . . I used an excessive amount of discretion."

Leonpacher - who said he was wearing his Atlanta Police Department uniform - said when he asked Fernandez-Armesto why he didn't follow his instructions, the author shrugged him off and walked away."Five times I asked him to stop," the officer said. He then asked him if he was hearing impaired. Once Fernandez-Armesto confirmed he wasn't, Leonpacher said he grabbed the professor's arm. "I let him go when he turned around to face me," he said. Leonpacher then says he repeatedly asked Fernandez-Armesto for his identification, but the professor responded by asking for the officer's I.D.When the historian allegedly repeatedly refused to produce ID (Fernandez-Armesto said he left his passport in his hotel room and was flummoxed when he realized he did not have it), Leonpacher said he told him he was under arrest. As he put his hands behind his back, "he pulled away and grabbed me. He said 'leave me alone, let me go.' I told him 'you're under arrest, stop resisting.' "Leonpacher, half Fernandez-Armesto's 56 years, contends he could not handcuff the professor by himself. "He was swinging, kicking wildly," Leonpacher said. Backup was called to assist in his detainment. They arrived almost immediately, Leonpacher said. According to the incident report, the cop quoted the professor as saying, "Well now I believe that you are the police."Leonpacher insists 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. Police describe the street as one of downtown's most dangerous for pedestrians.Fernandez-Armesto, who suffered minor cuts during the scrum, was taken into custody via a prisoner transport van. The historian said he spent the next eight hours alongside "extremely unfortunate members of the underclass."As the investigation unfolds, Leonpacher's superiors said they stand behind their charge."He is an outstanding officer," said Maj. James Sellers. "We've never had a complaint about him before."

A follow-up article in The Daily Mail later reported:

The 56-year-old academic failed to realise that a man telling him to stop crossing was a police officer and he argued with him.Kevin Leonpacher kicked the professor's legs from under him when he hesitated in showing his ID. The officer called for back-up and Professor Fernandez-Armesto was handcuffed to another suspect in a "filthy, foetid paddy wagon".

Note the change in reporting. The first Daily Mail article writes:

". . . the professor said he did not realize that he [Leonpacher] was from the police department"

which has been transformed to a statement of fact in the second article. It is now taken for granted that Fernandez-Armesto's claim not to have recognized Leonpacher as a police officer is genuine and sincere.

Further, the account in the first article of Leonpacher's violent arrest of Fernandez-Armesto is clearly a quotation of the professor's account: "This young man kicked my legs from under me . . . "

In the second article, this event is reported as, "Kevin Leonpacher kicked the professor's legs from under him when he hesitated in showing his ID."

Noting that the second article's headline claimed that Fernandez-Armesto had been jailed for "jaywalking" and that the coverage had transmogrified into something disturbingly close to the "victim's" version of his own arrest, I wrote a comment to The Daily Mail, arguing that while this incident merited a full investigation, it was not immediately apparent that the officer was at fault.

Curiously, though I was the first person to comment on this article, my perspective was never included in the Comments section.

Last Friday afternoon at work, I turned to the Internet for some relief from work-related boredom (you may know the feeling). After visiting a site or two, my boredom still unrelieved, I started looking in the links column for some new and unexplored territory. My eye landed on the name, Colby Cosh, which it seemed to me I had seen before. It has a nice, alliterative quality, and I thought to give it a try. After scrolling down to the third or fourth post, I discovered the following:

The thin blue line

Can anybody supply a remotely acceptable explanation for the way Felipe Fernandez-Armesto was treated by the Atlanta police on January 6? One hopes it will be of some general interest to newspaper editors that a best-selling historian who is 56 years old (and about as physically imposing as the Taco Bell chihuahua) was challenged on an American street by an out-of-uniform cop, knocked down when he asked to see a badge, and imprisoned with felony suspects for eight hours because he jaywalked unwittingly between two adjacent hotels.- 12:42

As we see, Leonpacher is now not only unrecognized by Fernandez-Armesto as an officer, he is "out-of-uniform" something which neither account of events in The Daily Mail, nor an article in The Telegraph, nor in the Times UK, even claims. Failure to recognize that an officer is in uniform is not the same thing as demonstrating that the officer is out of uniform. The so-called "louche" bomber jacket worn by officer Leonpacher was, according to Leonpacher, a standard, Navy blue officer's winter jacket, which, I can attest from personal familiarity, bears the City of Atlanta police department patch on the shoulder.

According to Cosh, Fernandez-Armesto was knocked down when he asked to see the officer's badge. Again, not even Fernandez-Armesto's quoted account alleges this. Fernandez-Armesto says that his legs were kicked out from under him when he (FA) failed to show his ID.

If we return to Officer Leonpacher's account, Fernandez-Armesto was thrown to the ground after struggling to resist arrest. Fernandez-Armesto was not, as several accounts suggest, arrested for "jaywalking." The Incident Report filed by Leonpacher makes clear that the arrest is for "Pedestrian Failure to Obey a Police Officer and Physical Obstruction of Police."

The Incident Report contains one more piece of pertinent information that has been reported in none of the articles I've seen covering this encounter. Two witnesses are cited as corroborating officer Leonpacher's version of events. Mr. Edward Allen, a bellman for the Hilton Hotel, is reported to have said that Fernandez-Armesto walked away from Leonpacher after the officer several times asked him to stop.

The second witness, Martin Catino, is quoted in the report as saying, " . . . the officer kept his cool. He was polite and asked him several times for his ID. The man was belligerent and refused to cooperate with him."

Those, like Colby Cosh, wishing to genuinely understand how this event unfolded might do well to take a look at the Incident Report, which is available to the public courtesy of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

As I reflected on this information, I became curious about Martin Catino's version of events and sought to contact him. It took me all of about 10 minutes to locate his email address. I explained to him my interest in this case, and that, having read the Incident Report, I was aware that he had been quoted in the manner cited above. Would, I wondered, he give me his version of events?

His response was prompt, polite, and thoroughly understandable, though slightly disappointing. Mr. Catino answered that, as this was a legal matter and still pending in the courts, he was unable to comment at this time.

So I didn't get my answer. But how, you may wonder, was I able to contact this witness so quickly? There was very little detective work involved. Like Fernandez-Armesto, Martin Catino is a a professor of history, and was on that day attending the same convention of the American Historical Association.

To reiterate, despite the public availability of this information, I've seen no mention of either Dr. Catino or Mr. Edward Allen, the other witness, in the by now seven or eight articles I've read on this incident.

In the meantime, Dr, Fernandez-Armesto has written an account of this ordeal, entitled "Atlanta Police are Barbaric," which begins with a quotation from fellow political prisoner Nelson Mandela, and concludes with a passing reference to "the era of George W. Bush." In his defense, the professor speaks quite highly of the Detention Center staff, contrasting their civility with the "barbaric, brutal, and out of control" behavior of the police.

Perhaps, between Dr. Fernandez-Armesto's account of the "insights you can only get from being assaulted by the police" and Officer Leonpacher's somewhat less lurid Incident Report, Colby Cosh may find the beginnings of an answer to his question.

Addendum: Here is a follow-up story in the AJC, touching upon British coverage of this arrest, if you find that you just can't get enough of all this. The article did provide the new photo above of Officer Leonpacher displaying his notorious, "louche bomber jacket," which seems somehow central to the ensuing confusion.

I should also add that my purpose here is neither to exonerate Kevin Leonpacher nor to condemn the arrest of Dr. Fernandez-Armesto. It may well be that Leonpacher over-reacted to the situation. It may be that Fernandez-Armesto knowingly ignored police instructions, and became belligerent and confrontational when told to stop. A third possibility is that this is a legitimate case of confusion and miscommunication, without a clear culprit. These are questions for a formal inquiry to decide.

My concern here was, and remains, the manner in which one party's version of a contested event has come to be reported as fact, often without any indication that these are the allegations of an individual protesting his arrest, not the recollections of an impartial observer. Perhaps there were no impartial observers, but a respect for the gravity of Fernandez-Armesto's allegations, and the seriousness of Kevin Leonpacher actions, demands something closer to impartiality than much of the media have thus far been willing to provide.


Theodore Breehn said...

We shall always just be the colonists.

I hope you emailed your account to Mr. Cosh

Black Sea said...

My respect for the truth is at war with the sense of good manners my mother beat into me as a child. But I am considering it.

Anonymous said...

I am a resident of Atlanta myself. When I saw the article in the paper, it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up because I recognized the name "Leonpacher" as my arresting officer 2-3yrs prior. As I was trying to change a tire at 2:30am after a blowout, I ended up on the business end of Officer Leonpacher's pistol. The ordeal resulted in a meeting with the LT. and me filing a complaint with Internal Affairs-- both dismissed his actions. Two points: 1. They claimed there'd never been a complaint made on this Officer. 2. What good is the huge "Atlanta Police" sign when it's on the back of the jacket? Was he walking towards the Professor backwards?

Black Sea said...


I appreciate your coments. They do shed greater light on Officer Leonpacher. In response to these comments, I would add the following.

Though I wrote the original post a long time ago, and haven't re-read it now, as I have to go to work, I do believe the point I was making was not that Leonpacher was necessesarily innocent.

Rather, I was focusing on how the media coverage changed through subsequent articles by increasingly reporting statements made by the professor as objective facts, rather than claims made by one participant in a dispute. This struck me, then and now, as sloppy at best.

With regard to the officer's jacket, the professor orgininally claimed that Leonpacher was wearing a "louche bomber jacket" over his uniform, implying that the jacket was not part of the uniform. Later media reports claimed, simply, that Leonpacher was "out of uniform" at the time of the altercation.

The jacket is purchased by the police department and is part of the uniform. I believe it has an Atlanta police department patch on the shoulder, but of course I could be wrong about this. In any event, even if its police emblem is inadequately displayed, this is, obviously, not the same thing as Leonpacher being out of uniform.

In short, what I was arguing for was greater journalistic accuracy. rather than a vindication of Leonpacher's version of events, though I must admit that the way this incident was reported made me increasingly wary of some of Professor Diaz's claims.

Thanks for your input on this issue.

Anonymous said...

A few years back I was arrested by Leonpacher for "criminal trespassing" outside a bar. The judge found no grounds for the incident (especially since Leonpacher was checking IDs and was off duty) and excused the charges. The pepper spray and asp were a bit much. I know this blog is dead and this message is unrelated, but I just wanted to say Leonpacher is a bastard and deserves whatever hell comes his way.

Black Sea said...

Thanks for the latest comment. Actually, I also have a follow-up on this post. Last year, I was back in Atlanta, and spoke with an acquaintance who is an APD officer about this incident. He implied pretty strongly, without coming right out and saying it, that Leonpacher was a bad cop. I think the words "crazy" and "idiotic" were used.

Anonymous said...

Why would anyone who has been arrested have anything nice to say about the officer who arrested them? Officer Leonpacher is an outstanding APD officer who saved me from a potentially harmful situation and I think he was just doing his job in arresting the stuffy British scholar.

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