Arrested, cuffed and jailed, the don caught jaywalking

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The Independent US

The slight, bespectacled British historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto does not have the demeanour of a criminal. The only individuals he has so much as upset in the past few months have been the nation's history teachers, many of whom he condemned as tendentious, narrow and dreary, in an article for The Independent.

But for a US law enforcer who saw him crossing the road in the wrong place in Atlanta, Georgia, last week, Professor Fernandez- Armesto was just another jaywalker. In scenes of "terrible, terrible violence", as the distinguished academic recalled them yesterday, he had his legs kicked from beneath him and was pinned to the ground by five officers before being handcuffed to another felon and locked up for eight hours.

Professor Fernandez-Armesto, professor of global environmental history at Queen Mary, University of London, and a member of Oxford University's modern history faculty, was left "traumatised and disorientated" and with a gash on his forehead before he was charged with pedestrian failure to obey a police officer, and physical obstruction of police. And, apparently most distressing of all, he had his box of peppermints confiscated.

The academic's failure to realise that the man telling him to stop was an officer led to his brush with the law after he had arrived for a convention of the American Historical Association. Officer Kevin Leonpacher's "rather louche" bomber jacket, which covered his uniform, had not helped, the professor told the History News Network, though the city's police department disputed Professor Fernandez-Armesto's account of the incident and said Officer Leonpacher was wearing "standard issue uniform with a black leather jacket with large reflective panels that said Atlanta Police."

Professor Fernandez-Armesto, 56, 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," in an entertaining interview which has been posted on YouTube. "I thanked him for his advice and went on."

When Officer Leonpacher tried to stop him and asked to see identification, Professor Fernandez-Armesto asked to see the policeman's ID, which he "didn't take kindly to". The professor added: "He said: 'I am going to arrest you.' In the culture I come from this wouldn't mean that the conversation was over. 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.

"Naturally I was bridling. 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 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, found himself in a "filthy, foetid paddy wagon" to be transported to jail. With his bail set at £720, he eventually got out with the help of a professional bail agent.

The next day in court the charges were dropped - to the relief of the professor who feared a criminal record and the loss of his green card. (He also works at Tufts University, Massachusetts.)

Officer Leonpacher, 28, offered a robust defence of his actions, insisting the historian had repeatedly refused to co-operate and had started to "wrestle". He told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "I used an excessive amount of discretion."

Joe Cobb, of the Atlanta police department, which held an internal inquiry into the incident, said: "The level of force was dictated by the professor, not by the officer. This gentleman had his British driver's licence on him the entire time. All he had to do was provide that to the officer and the worse-case scenario is he would have been given a ticket."

But Lisa Kazmier, a history professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, said the Briton had been treated "like he was Osama Bin Laden or something".

Professor Fernandez-Armesto told the television channel: "It was a fantastic experience going into that detention centre and spending time with those miserable wretches of the earth."