There a lot of bad cops out there. There are racist bullies with badges who abuse their authority and lord over minorities with threats of violence and everyday harassment. There are cops who believe they can kill a person of color and will almost certainly not have to answer for it. These kinds of cops deserve to have a bright light put on them and to be delivered into the hands of an equitable justice system that recognizes them for what they are and treats them accordingly. It’s not always the kind of thing that can be done overnight, but it absolutely must be done because there’s little more dangerous in our society than a bad cop. The only thing worse is when there’s a corrupt institution in place that allows that bad cop to thrive.
So, yeah, when we see police behaving like racist thugs, that kind of thing should get our attention. The problem is that if every questionable encounter involving a black person and a white police officer is deemed worthy of the same level of outrage, the method by which we call out bad behavior and the measurements we apply in determining it won’t deserve to be taken seriously. In other words, blow everything up into an international incident and your indignation eventually loses its value.
Which brings us to Danièle Watts. Last Thursday, the Django Unchained actress was briefly detained by police patrolling Studio City in Los Angeles after someone apparently called 911 to report an incident of “indecent exposure” near the CBS Studio Center off Ventura Boulevard. It turned out that Watts had gotten on top of her partner, Brian James Lucas — who’s white — in the front seat of his car and was reportedly either making out or having sex with him and this is what eventually brought the police to them. When officers asked to see Watts’s ID, she balked and allegedly walked away from them. She was ultimately confronted and handcuffed while they figured out who she was and checked out whether the call they’d received was legit. According to Watts and Lucas, the whole thing was a clear-cut case of cops mistaking them for a prostitute and a john, and they took to Facebook to say so.
Here’s how Watts tells it:
Today I was handcuffed and detained by 2 police officers from the Studio City Police Department after refusing to agree that I had done something wrong by showing affection, fully clothed, in a public place.
When the officer arrived, I was standing on the sidewalk by a tree. I was talking to my father on my cell phone. I knew that I had done nothing wrong, that I wasn’t harming anyone, so I walked away.
A few minutes later, I was still talking to my dad when 2 different police officers accosted me and forced me into handcuffs.
As I was sitting in the back of the police car, I remembered the countless times my father came home frustrated or humiliated by the cops when he had done nothing wrong. I felt his shame, his anger, and my own feelings of frustration for existing in a world where I have allowed myself to believe that “authority figures” could control my BEING… my ability to BE!!!!!!!
And here’s Lucas’s take:
Today, Daniele Watts & I were accosted by police officers after showing our affection publicly.
From the questions that he asked me as D was already on her phone with her dad, I could tell that whoever called on us (including the officers), saw a tatted RAWKer white boy and a hot bootie shorted black girl and thought we were a HO (prostitute) & a TRICK (client).
Because of my past experience with the law, I gave him my ID knowing we did nothing wrong and when they asked D for hers, she refused to give it because they had no right to do so.
So they handcuffed her and threw her roughly into the back of the cop car until they could figure out who she was. In the process of handcuffing her, they cut her wrist, which was truly NOT COOL!!!
Of course, they had to let her go eventually cuz we weren’t a threat to anyone.
So, let’s recap: the police get a 911 call which certainly may have come from some uptight asshole who jumped to a conclusion about a black woman and white man going at it in a car but which they have to check out because it’s their job. They find two people who fit the description they were given — who could very well have been visibly fucking in the middle of a residential area — and ask for IDs. According to California law, you’re not required to present ID to a police officer but an officer can detain you briefly while he or she assesses the situation, so since Watts decided to ignore police and leave the scene, she was cuffed. (Also, sorry, but you don’t get to decide that you’re doing nothing wrong and therefore can just bail when the cops are trying to talk to you; imagine if everybody did that.) Watts was held for a very short amount of time, then was released once police realized that the call they received didn’t warrant any attention. It’s an unfortunate inconvenience to Watts and her boyfriend, but, again, it’s not as if police just walked up on the street and started harassing them. They received a call and responded to it. That call amounted to nothing and it would’ve continued to had Danièle Watts not decided to unnecessarily escalate the situation.
Here, listen to audio of the stop, obtained by TMZ.
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This morning on CNN, Danièle Watts told New Day host Michaela Pereira that she was unhappy with how the officer had initially treated her. “For me, if he had come to me and said excuse me ma’am, you seem like a respectable person, but someone made a call, can we just talk to you for a second, the whole situation would have been different,” she said. Okay, except for the fact that the police are required to treat you, no matter who you are, with respect and professionalism, but not deference. They’re not required to kiss your ass when they approach you on a call because you just might be a very special snowflake. They’re not supposed to immediately speak to you like they’re asking you to give to the Police Benevolent Association — at least not until they’ve identified you. They’re required to be on guard; it’s their job.
It sure as hell appears, judging by the TMZ recording, that “Sgt. Parker” was calm and respectful toward Watts. (By the way, the “I think I’d like to identify you to my publicist” and “I serve freedom and love, you guys serve detainment” lines have to be the most “L.A.” things ever uttered by anyone ever; God I love this town.) And contrary to the inevitable outrage some are expressing online about this incident, I’m not sure the police jumped to any conclusions regarding Watts and her partner other than that they looked like the two people they got the call on. Again, they got a call, they checked it out, they would’ve found it to be nothing and Danièle Watts and her partner likely would’ve gotten an apology for the inconvenience and a sincere “have a nice day” — if Watts hadn’t decided the whole thing was somehow a civil rights issue.
It wasn’t. Not this time. At least not insofar as the police treatment of Watts.
We can point to plenty of instances where police have harassed or unlawfully arrested black people. A situation in Beverly Hills recently, where TV producer Charles Belk was mistaken for someone who’d just robbed a bank and was arrested, should’ve given the cops a very necessary lesson in wrongly assuming that a black person automatically fits the description of a criminal. Even if the police felt sure they had their guy, Belk should’ve been IDd immediately and released with an apology once it was shown that they were wrong. But Danièle Watts wasn’t arrested at all. She and her partner were also apparently never referred to officially as a prostitute and a john; that’s simply how they interpreted it. Their version of what happened may very well be the correct one, but it’s worth noting here that any media outlet that reports on this and claims that Watts and Lucas were stopped by the “Studio City Police Department” is probably getting its information only from Watts and Lucas themselves, since there is no Studio City Police Department, only the LAPD’s North Hollywood Division. That’s how misinformation spreads and how bullshit becomes fact.
If she really has had the cops called on her and Lucas in the past, simply because they’re an interracial couple, that’s unconscionable — but that’s not this particular cop’s problem this particular time. Maybe she wasn’t doing anything wrong — but the cop definitely wasn’t.
Yeah, it’s tempting to crank up the indignation on this because it feels so familiar. But not every incident can rise to the same standard. Not every incident deserves to be a flashpoint for our finely honed outrage. And this one absolutely doesn’t.