The case of Daniele Watts, the “Django Unchained” actress who claimed she was a victim of racism last summer after an encounter with the Los Angeles Police Department, has ended as ridiculously as it began.
Watts, you recall, had been canoodling with her boyfriend in a parked Mercedes-Benz in broad daylight last Sept. 11 in Studio City. Office workers in nearby buildings called police to complain of lewd behavior. When the police arrived, the pair were lying side by side, smoking a cigarette.
When the police arrived, Watts was standing next to the car. Her boyfriend, Brian Lucas, was sitting in the front seat.
Police Sgt. Jim Parker, who had been on his way to buy coffee when the call came in, asked for ID.
Watts refused and went off on Parker, accusing him of stopping her because she is black and her boyfriend is white. She stalked off, and Parker radioed to colleagues down the block to nab her. They cuffed her and brought her back to Parker, where she continued her now-famous meltdown.
Still, the police determined no crime had been committed and let the couple go.
But Watts and Lucas took to Facebook, complaining they’d been victims of racial profiling. Their posts went viral.
And then Sgt. Parker, trying to stop a faux racial controversy from mushrooming into a cause célèbre, released his 23-minute audio recording of the stop to TMZ.
Making the audio public violated department policy, but the narrative instantly reversed: Watts came off like an entitled brat, making accusations about race partly because she was embarrassed about being stopped by police and partly because she had experienced racial profiling in the past.
On the recording, Parker was as calm as Watts was overheated, but I found him disappointingly sarcastic and patronizing. (“Why do you think you’re in handcuffs?” he asked Watts. “Do you think we put you in handcuffs or you did?”)
Given Watts’ overwrought emotional state, he could have done a lot to calm her down. Instead, he seemed determined to provoke her. I found that unprofessional.
Still, local civil rights leaders demanded that she apologize.
Instead, at the end of September, Watts penned a defensive essay for The Times, invoking a history of being wrongfully stopped by police, and sticking by her claim that she was not obligated to show her identification to Parker, who had not formally detained her. “California law,” she wrote, “does not require you to produce identification simply because a police officer demands it.” (The ACLU agreed.)
Witnesses to the couple’s amorous behavior, perhaps antagonized by Watts’ continuing self-righteousness, stepped forward, giving the city attorney cause to charge Watts and Lucas with lewd conduct after all.
This smacked of payback to me, rather than justice. It still does.
Even Parker admitted as much to my colleagues Kate Mather and Richard Winton last October: “If they had handled this situation in a civil manner, they would never have been charged or detained for that long. I would have been gone in five minutes.”
In May, in exchange for a dismissal of the lewd conduct charges, the lovebirds agreed to plead no contest to charges of disturbing the peace. They would perform 40 hours of community service and spend a year in a formal diversion program.
They also agreed to write letters of apology to the police officers involved in the stop, and to office workers who witnessed a fully clothed Watts sitting on Lucas’ lap, facing him, moving and making noise on that fateful day.
“Hopefully,” Watts wrote, “you can forgive the fact that my heightened emotions disturbed what might have otherwise been a carefree stop on your way to a nice cup of coffee.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Christine Ewell determined that Watts’ letter was insincere and ordered her to pen a second letter, which, alas, also was found wanting.
I could understand the judge taking issue with the first letter, which was not exactly a model of contrition. But the second letter seemed pretty sincere to me: “I apologize for my lack of emotional control,” wrote Watts, “and ask for forgiveness.”
Not good enough, said Ewell, who declared the second effort was also insincere and passive-aggressive and stiffened the penalties against Watts and Lucas last Wednesday.
The pair now will be required to perform 15 days of community labor and will be on probation for two years.
Parker, for his part, decided to retire after 26 years with the LAPD, rather than face a disciplinary hearing for speaking to the media and releasing the recording without permission. The recording certainly didn’t show him in the best light, but it did show he was not acting out of any racial animus. For the record, I think he was right to release it.
Watts and Lucas, however, made two big mistakes. They had sex, or simulated sex, in public, a dumb thing to do in broad daylight. And in the absence of any evidence, they ascribed racist motives to a police officer at a time when the issue of policing and race is particularly fraught and easy to exploit.
They started a chain of events that Parker exacerbated. And now everyone involved has paid a price. If that’s justice, I guess I can live with it.