Actress Daniele Watts handcuffed for failing to show ID to police

At first glance, this story doesn’t look like the sort of thing which would normally catch our attention, but it really does tie in to broader issues currently under discussion nationally in terms of race relations and how the police interact with those they serve and protect. Out on the left coast, quite close to the liberal Ground Zero of Hollywood, actress Daniele Watts ran into some trouble this week. (You may remember Watts from her appearance in Django Unchained among other roles.) As Reason tells the tale, she was outdoors, hanging out with her husband and talking on the phone with her father, when she was approached by the police.

African-American actress Danièle Watts claims she was “handcuffed and detained” by police officers from the Studio City Police Department in Los Angeles on Thursday after allegedly being mistaken for a prostitute.

According to accounts by Watts and her husband Brian James Lucas, two police officers mistook the couple for a prostitute and client when they were seen showing affection in public. Watts refused to show her ID to the cops when questioned and was subsequently handcuffed and placed in the back of their car while police attempted to ascertain her identity. The two officers released Watts shortly afterwards.

There are two sides to this story and we shouldn’t ignore either of them. I will grant that there are questions to be answered as to how and why the officers determined that she might be a prostitute and approached her on that basis. Watts is black and her husband is white, so it would be disingenuous to ignore that aspect of the encounter with the cops entirely. If this was an area which was experiencing a lot of problems and complaints about such activity, they might approach anyone. But if this was some sort of selective targeting which was out of their normal enforcement priorities, it’s fair to ask questions about that.

But there’s a second part to this story as well. By her own account of the events, the cops began by asking questions, not throwing her to the ground, tazing her or any other such tactics. And the leading question – which I’m sure anyone of any race who has ever had to speak to the police has heard as well – was can we see your ID? This is pretty basic. If the cops think that there might be a crime to be investigated, ascertaining who they are speaking with is pretty much square one. Watts made the conscious decision to refuse to identify herself or show her ID.

What are the cops supposed to do in cases like this? If there was a burglary in the area and they saw someone who matched the description of a suspect, if that person refuses to show their ID should the police just say, Oh well, I guess that’s a dead end and walk away? Watts clearly knew where this was going and it’s difficult to believe she didn’t react that way as a provocative act to get a reaction from the police. Had she simply identified herself and revealed that the person with her was her husband – particularly given her high profile identity – this matter would have been over in moments. And in the end, she was not taken to the station, locked up, or anything else. The cops figured out who she was, that there was no crime in progress, and cut her loose.

Many years ago, Chris Rock put out a comedy video about how not to get in trouble with the police. (Language warning should go without saying.) Behind the humor there’s probably some pretty good advice to be found. (And before you set your hair on fire, yes… that was a joke. And I’ve always loved that video.)

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