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By now the news of “Django Unchained” actress Daniele Watts has been splashed all over nearly every news outlet in America. After responding to a 911 call from witnesses about indecent exposure in a car, LAPD officers located Watts and her boyfriend and asked to see their identification. Watts refused, claiming she had done nothing wrong and was only kissing her boyfriend. Officers eventually handcuffed her and detained her in the back of their patrol car until they were able to determine no wrongdoing had occurred.

Stills from the scene are compelling- an attractive, young black woman in a benign outfit of running shorts and t-shirt with her hands cuffed behind her sobbing and pleading to be released. Couple that with the knowledge that her boyfriend is white and the LAPD isn’t exactly known for their stellar customer service and it looks like a recipe for outrage.

However, eyewitnesses who called 911 claim there was a lot more than kissing going on in the vehicle within full view of anyone walking by. In the video the police can be seen keeping a distance, being polite and subsequent audio reveals they told Watts had she simply shown her identification they would have moved on without incident.

Contrast Watts’ case with an encounter 20-year-old Tywonn Mitchell had with Detroit cops in May of last year. Mitchell and his brother Naybon Moore, 26 say they were driving  to a local burger shop when police started tailing them. Both were working towards college degrees at the time and had never been in trouble, so they felt confident when police finally pulled off from the store that it was just a case of curiosity on the part of the police. However, when they entered the shop the officers followed and demanded the men show identification. Mitchell questioned their reasoning as they had done nothing wrong and there seemed to be no justification for that line of questioning.

Video from the encounter shows the police aggressively badgering Mitchell and his brother. At one point an officer reached out to grab Mitchell, who instinctively threw up his hands to bat away the grip. What ensued next was an all out brawl. The brothers were charged with assault. Eventually the charges were dropped after prosecutors deemed the police behavior unnecessarily aggressive.

Both cases involved white officers and black civilians. Both cases were recorded. In both cases officers demanded identification. In both cases the civilians refused. So what’s the difference?

Attitude.

I always tell my son that if and when a police pulls him over he is to do everything he can to comply with their requests and if he has a problem he can file it at the station at a later date. Raising suspicions by refusing to cooperate generally does nothing but escalate the situation quickly. However, at what point does one stand up for themselves if they know such police attention is completely unwarranted? I also don’t want my son to forget that the police ultimately work for him (and all law-abiding citizens) and he also should not discount his survival instincts if he feels threatened.

It’s a fine line to walk. One that leads to a lot of misunderstandings and sometimes tragic results. Had Watts simply handed over her I.D. no one would even be talking about this story. She chose to lead with indignation, which prompted further action on the part of police. Had Watts taken 10 seconds to think about why it is necessary for the police to identify young women in possible sex trade cases she may have been able to avoid detention. Police were responding to a call made specifically in regards to that couple. The illegal sex trade involves many young women whom are forced into servitude. Sex trafficking is a huge issue, especially in Los Angeles. Police have a responsibility to make sure they are not leaving behind a helpless young woman who needs to be rescued.

On the other hand, Mitchell and his brother were clearly doing nothing wrong. Police were not responding to any sort of call. They seemed perturbed and confrontational. Mitchell was right to question why they wanted his identification. While police are here to protect the safety of citizens, it does not give them carte blanche ask any citizen for their personal information at any time in any circumstance. Again, that line is very fine, but it is there and the Detroit police crossed it in this instance.

The moral of the story is that we shouldn’t be conditioned to simply acquiesce to every request from police whenever the notion strikes them. They are civil servants and need to be reminded they are here to serve and protect, not harass and embarrass. That being said, it is our responsibility as citizens to understand the nature of the job they are doing. We must use discernment and common sense to judge each encounter with the authorities. Sadly, it seems both are in short supply these days for police and the citizens they serve.

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