Thursday, August 23, 2007

Freeway Blogging ~ Sometimes OK, Sometimes Not

In Mike Stark's Diary on the Daily Kos he spoke with Lt. Welch and Chief Hogan about the charges against Jonas. Lt. Welch told him that 'as a result of City Council interest and the inordinate amount of attention the case had received, there was a special meeting going on that involved the Police Chief and that a decision would be made at the conclusion of the meeting.'

Later in the evening on the same day, Chief Hogan relayed the following "facts" regarding the case:
  • This was not the first time a sign-holder had been asked to refrain from standing on the overpass with their sign: Jonas' wife, just a couple of weeks earlier, had been asked to stop and complied with the request.
  • Trouble was brewing. As Jonas has stated, this was something he has done more than once. It turns out that the highway he held the sign above is a main traffic corridor in Asheville that, during rush hour, get's very busy. As people drove beneath the overpass, his activism caused some people to slow down, honk horns, etc. The poloce expressed a concern for the worst case scenario - that Jonas might accidentally drop the sign and cause an accident.
  • On previous occasions, the police had received calls from passing motorists. The motorists were told that the police couldn't - or wouldn't - take any action. At that, the motorists called into a local radio show and sentiment was whipped up until a plan was hatched to confront Jonas on the overpass with signs of their own. This escalation concerned the police.
  • the Chief was concerned for the repuation of his department. He repeatedly told me how diligently his force has worked to provide safe spaces for protestors. From Wiccans that wanted to pray over trees on private property scheduled for a date with a chainsaw, to KKK members that insisted that their rights be respected, the Asheville PD has consistently made efforts to protect and accomodate both protestors and the public at large.
  • regarding the incident in question, Jonas crossed went to the other side of the bridge when the police first approached, causing them to have to circle back in order to accost him. (I didn't ask, but this may be the reason Sgt. Riddle was called to the scene.)
  • I asked why Jonas was handcuffed and arrested instead of simply ticketed and released. The Chief said that was a matter of Police discretion.
  • Sgt. Riddle is a dyed in the wool Democrat and really stunned at some of the email he has received. This entire state of affairs is a shock to everyone concerned. He thought he was writing a ticket and never expected it to blow up into this. Jonas' adept use of the internet has really blown this up in a way that nobody expected.
  • When I asked if there was an avenue that Jonas could pursue in which he might offer to waive any right to a civil suit in exchange for the City telling him exactly how he could protest and why what he did ran afould of the law, the Chief said that was out of his hands, but that it would be something that he wouldn't mind seeing come to pass. Jonas would have to speak with the DA about it.
  • In retrospect, the Police do have some regrets with regards to what was said on the scene.
On the day I (Kindra, Jonas's wife) was approached by the police officer on the bridge I was never told to stop and I have been back since that encounter. The officer told me that the same individual had called the police department 3-4 times complaining about 'someone loitering on the bridge'. He said that he drove by a couple of times and saw that I was not doing anything wrong, but with the continuing phone calls he was prompted to stop and talk to me. He said that as far as he knew, there wasn't any ordinance against what I was doing and at the end of our conversation he drove off letting me continue with my freeway blogging.
On another occasion which was a day or two after Jonas's arrest, I was approach by two different officers in the same hour. The first officer asked for my ID and I told him that I did not have it on me and that it was in my car. He questioned me about why I was on this specific bridge (Haywood Road). I told him that I was there because it was a convenient location close to my house. He then asked to look at my sign to see what it said. After reading it he said "It looks like free speech to me", and then returned to his car and drove off. Moments later I was approached by another officer and she conveyed her concern over it being a dangerous distraction to motorists, which is the first time that any officer had expressed this concern. By this time I had already been there 50 minutes and my hour was almost over. I had also secured my sign with a cord that was hanging behind my neck. She did not make me leave and I continued staying the additional 10 minutes I had planned on.
Downtown on the Flint Street bridge, several people have been freeway blogging for the past few months. On a couple of occasions, the police have questioned them and let them continue about their business.

This is the guiding principles of the Asheville Police Department:

Guiding Principles
The Asheville Police Department will achieve its mission by committing to excellence through:

Honesty, compassion, trust, and accountability. Police officers have the courage to do what is morally, ethically, and legally right regardless of risk.

The Police Department will treat everyone impartially without favoritism or bias.

The Police Department will treat everyone with dignity and courtesy without prejudice.
The Police Department will deliver quality services through cooperation, open communication and a commitment to continuous improvement.

How fair are they really?

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