You’d really hate to think that the latest Los Angeles Police Department controversy turns on whether a pair of adult lovers were or were not having sex in their car in broad daylight. I’m pretty sure that people who decide to get down in a parked car do so because part of the thrill is knowing you could get caught.
Kids might see, which is gross. But worse, grownups might see and call the police, who might arrest you on suspicion of committing for lewd acts, or, if you are no longer engaged in anything that could be construed as a lewd act, they might demand your identification.
If you refuse to provide your ID, all hell might break loose.
I don’t know what actress Daniele Watts and her partner, chef Brian James Lucas, were doing in their car on Radford Avenue in Studio City last Thursday afternoon. They said they were making out. Someone who called the cops from a nearby office building said they were having sex.
Things escalated when Watts refused to identify herself to Los Angeles Police Sgt. Jim Parker, who responded to the call. There has been a lively discussion ever since about whether Watts was within her rights to refuse to produce ID.
The Los Angeles Police Department and the ACLU of Southern California have a serious difference of opinion on the matter.
LAPD spokesman Andy Neiman told me she was required by law to identify herself; Peter Bibring, director of police practices for the ACLU of Southern California, said she was not.
“If officers have stopped you with a reasonable suspicion or they received a radio call about a crime suspected to be in progress — like there are people having sex in their car with the door open — they can demand ID," said Neiman. "You can’t have sex in public, it’s a violation of Penal Code 647A, lewd and lascivious acts.”
Bibring disagreed. “The LAPD says. 'If we are investigating a crime, you have to show us your identification.' To put it bluntly, that is not true."
When Watts refused to produce her ID, said Bibring, the officer had a decision to make. Since the alleged lewd act was no longer in progress, he could either let her go or continue to investigate it, which would involve asking the person who complained to come forward to make a complaint — technically, a citizen’s arrest. If the complainant declined (Neiman told me that, in his 28 years of policing, he has never seen anyone make a citizens arrest over consensual sex), he can’t detain her for simply refusing to produce her ID.
“In California,” said Bibring, “an officer cannot arrest someone for refusing to provide identification, even if you are being investigated for a crime.”
I find Bibring persuasive. I think Sgt. Parker screwed up.
Initial public reaction was outrage, and seemed to favor a here-we-go-again racial interpretation of the stop — a black woman and white man in a car could only mean one thing, right? Prostitution. How dare the cops — and the people who reported the incident — engage in such blatant racial profiling?
Then TMZ (naturally) got its hands on a 23-minute police audiotape of the interaction between Watts, Lucas and LAPD Sgt. Jim Parker.
The actress can be heard invoking race, as well as some sort of celebrity privilege (“I have a publicist”) before stalking off. A few minutes later, she was returned in handcuffs by different officers, and then alternates between being deeply distressed, sarcastic and calm. The narrative — I could see in comments and social media — began to change: Entitled actress plays the race card, expects special treatment.
I think Watts could have behaved with more decorum, but given the long, unfortunate history of well publicized police interactions with African Americans (it matters not whether you are a Los Angeles Superior Court judge or a Hollywood producer), I think her histrionics cannot be blamed on celebrity privilege or embarrassment alone. I think she was invoking her status as a shield, just in case things went south, as they so often do, and certainly did here.
Also, and most important, she was right. She was under no obligation to produce her ID.
I give Sgt. Parker credit for never losing his cool, though I must call him out for his condescension and racial cluelessness.
“She needs to learn not to see everything in black and white,” Parker is heard telling Lucas on the tape, after Watts walked away. “Would it make it better for her to see a black officer pull up?...And what if the people who called [to complain] were black?”
Or how about if he told Watts that some of his best friends are black?
Seriously, Sgt. Parker needs a refresher course in the racial dynamics of his job, of his city, his country.
A few other things jumped out at me as I listened to the tape.
For starters, Lucas shared way too much information with Parker, probably out of nervousness. He agreed that Watts sees things through a racial lens, and said he would raise the issue with her — but without mentioning that the sergeant had raised it first. (Their little secret!)
“She’s being a little difficult,” Parker said at one point. As Lucas laughed a little too loudly, Parker added “She keeps you on your toes.” With no prompting, Lucas told Parker that he had done time in prison “for marijuana” eight years ago, and Parker slyly asked later whether he was on parole or probation.
All due respect to the difficult job that LAPD has, but when you have been stopped by a cop, you should understand, he is not making innocent conversation with you. He is judging and assessing you. Your small talk can and will be used against you.
Another troublesome thing on the tape: When a very upset Watts walked away from the scene, Parker never orders her to stay put. Instead, he radioed some nearby officers -- people he was about to meet for coffee, he says on the audiotape -- and asked them to retrieve her. She is returned in handcuffs, more upset than when she left, and rightfully so.
“Of course you can't walk away from a detention,” said the ACLU’s Bibring. “But the officer didn't actually tell Ms. Watts she was being detained. She was upset, and she told the officer she was walking away and did so. The officer didn't tell her to stop. Instead, he let her go, continued to talk with Mr. Lucas then called another unit who brought Ms Watts back handcuffed, and accused her of fleeing a detention. This isn't just a technicality.”
There was also something more subtle going on, the kind of power trip at which police officers sometimes excel, the kind of calculated baiting that can inflame an already tense situation.
“Why do you think you’re in handcuffs?” Parker asks Watts, like a parent speaking to toddler. “Do you think we put you in handcuffs or you did?”
“I put myself in handcuffs?” she asks, incredulous.
“Who do you think put you in handcuffs? No, I think you did the minute you left the scene. I’m sorry, do you see the gentleman [Lucas] here in handcuffs? … No he’s not.”
Watts then asks, “What’s your first name, Officer Parker?”
“My name is Sgt. Parker and that’s all you need to know.”
“I think I’d like to identify you to my publicist,” she replies. “What’s your first name?”
“Now do you see why you are in handcuffs?” he replies.
This kind of baiting is out of bounds.
Parker should not have demanded her ID. He should not have called more police on her when she walked way. And he certainly should not have spoken to her so disrespectfully, regardless of how she behaved.
"You think you're better than me and have more power than me," Watts tells Parker.
"I do have more power than you," he replies. "When I tell you to do something, you have to do it."
I would suggest that Daniele Watts has some maturing to do. But I would also say the same of Sgt. Parker.
Don't have sex in cars, but please follow me on Twitter: @robinabcarian