Los Angeles police Chief Charlie Beck expressed support Tuesday for the way a sergeant and two officers acted last week when they detained and handcuffed an actress.
Beck cautioned that he had not made a final decision about the matter but said he believed, based on an initial review of audio recordings, photographs and witnesses’ statements, that the officers acted within their legal authority.
Beck noted that an internal investigation into Thursday’s detention of “Django Unchained” actress Daniele Watts was ongoing.
“It appears to me that they acted in exactly the manner that I would expect a Los Angeles police officer to act: They respond to a complaint of a crime by a person in Los Angeles, and when they get there, they do an adequate investigation,” Beck told reporters. “And then, based on that investigation, they take action. And that’s what they did in this case.”
“Their decision to detain, investigate further and then release is well within the bounds of policing and the authority of police in the state of California,” Beck said.
The LAPD has been criticized for the officers’ handling of the Studio City incident. Watts and her boyfriend, celebrity chef Brian James Lucas, wrote about the encounter on their Facebook pages and alleged that Watts was mistreated because of her race. Lucas wrote that the police had acted as though the couple had been engaged in prostitution because Lucas is white and Watts is black.
Lt. Andrew Neiman, a department spokesman, said officers contacted Watts and Lucas after receiving a 911 call complaining that a couple were having sex in a vehicle parked on Radford Avenue. The 911 caller described the couple as a black woman with a shirt and floral shorts and a white man with a black tank top, Neiman said.
ACLU officials said they were concerned with the decision to stop and handcuff Watts. Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California, said that in California, police cannot arrest someone for refusing to provide identification.
The “LAPD’s continued statements concerning an officer’s authority to arrest a person for merely failing to provide identification are not only inaccurate but contrary to law,” he said in a statement. “Without a valid reason to identify her, the officer seems only to have wanted to detain and punish her for exercising her rights.”
On Monday, Sgt. Jim Parker defended his role in the incident, telling The Times it was a routine call that escalated into a “long, drawn-out drama” when Watts refused to identify herself. He said he approached the couple because they matched the description of the people described in the 911 call.
Beck told reporters that officers may properly ask for identification when they have reasonable suspicion -- a threshold lower than probable cause -- that someone may have been involved in the commission of a crime.
“There is no absolute requirement in California that a person carry ID or provide it just upon demand by a police officer,” Beck said. “However, if you’re being investigated for another offense and your identity is important to the investigation of that offense, then you must, by state law, comply with the legal authority of the officer -- which is to request your ID.”
Attorney Dmitry Gorin said he believed the officers had the necessary reasonable suspicion to ask for identification. Refusing to obey an officer’s commands during an investigation and walking away could also be considered obstruction of justice, he said.
“There is an easy way and a hard way in reality to deal with this situation. The officers can detain you in the back of a police car until they know who you are,” said Gorin, a defense attorney and former prosecutor. “They may want your identity to determine if you are on probation, have committed similar crimes or have an outstanding warrant.”
On Tuesday morning, Lucas said in a text message to The Times that the couple was holding off on interviews until they met with advisors. He also said he and Watts had spoken to a sergeant with the LAPD’s internal affairs office about the incident.
A 24-minute audio recording obtained by The Times and verified by a law enforcement source familiar with the incident captures the encounter. Parker can be heard asking Lucas for his ID as Watts speaks to her father on the phone. When she stops the conversation to ask what’s going on, Parker explains that he responded to the scene following a call about “lewd acts.”
WARNING: Audio contains obscenities - Actress Daniele Watts questioned by LAPD
Watts insisted that the couple had done nothing wrong.
“Somebody called, which gives me the right to be here, so it gives me the right to identify you by law,” Parker said, according to the recording, portions of which were first published by celebrity news site TMZ.com.
“Do you know how many times I’ve been called, the cops have been called just for being black?” Watts said. “Just because we’re black and he’s white? I’m just being really honest, sir.”
“Who brought up the race card?” Parker said.
“I’m bringing it up,” she said.
“I said nothing about you being black,” the sergeant responded.
Parker said Watts walked away after refusing to provide her ID. He then radioed for the other officers to bring her back to the scene.
When Watts returned, she cried as she berated and cursed the police. She was released after Lucas handed police her ID, and officers determined the couple were not wanted on outstanding warrants. In the audio, Parker told Watts the encounter would have lasted just a few minutes had she identified herself earlier. He pointed out that Lucas, who had been cooperative, had not been handcuffed.