"Punky Brewster" actress Cherie Johnson and her boyfriend Dennis White of the film "Notorious" were excited for their romantic getaway to Myrtle Beach, S.C., until things took a turn for the worse when they encountered local police on Sept. 22. The Hollywood actors had just finished administering an acting workshop in North Carolina when they parked their rental car to the side of a highway.
Johnson wanted to stop because she saw cotton plants and wanted to take photos of them. "I said, 'Babe, is that cotton?'" Johnson told Metro. "I'm a city girl - I grew up in California - so I had never seen it before." Johnson now says that if she could go back in time, she would not have stopped to see it because soon after, a police car parked behind them and an officer came out to question them.
White said the officer, Shad Barfield, asked them what they were doing, and when Johnson said she just wanted to see the cotton, Barfield told them to get back in the car and pulled out his gun. "He asked billions of questions," White told Metro. "He asked us where we were from, what we were doing, how long we were going to be there, what hotel we were staying in, what airport we had flown in from." White said that Barfield checked his license and registration, and then asked him if he had any drugs in the car. When White said no, Barfield turned to Johnson and asked her the same questions and also took her license and registration.
Johnson and White said when Barfield returned from his car, he claimed that Johnson had a warrant for an arrest. Johnson responded, "I've never done anything wrong in my life." She added that the last time she was in South Carolina was when she was a teenager promoting the "Just Say No to Drugs" campaign - an episode of Punky Brewster was even dedicated to the "Just Say No" campaign. Ironically, Barfield suspected the couple of drug possession. Johnson said that after questioning her some more, Barfield returned to his car to double-check on the warrant and came back to admit that there was no warrant for her arrest. Johnson said she wishes she hadn't said what she said next.
"'Are you doing this because we're black?'" recalled Johnson - both officers were white. "He got back in the car. I was texting my mom and tweeting because I was scared. He came back and he handcuffed Dennis [White] and I texted my mom and tweeted, 'Oh my god, they just handcuffed him.' I was trying to tell my mom where we were, and when [Barfield] came back he took me out of the car aggressively." Barfield would not let Johnson finish text messaging her mother and he handcuffed her as well. White said when he asked the officer why he was handcuffing them, he responded, "Because I can." A second officer pulled up in a patrol car and recognized the actors from their various roles, but it didn't help their case.
Johnson said the officer then questioned her and her boyfriend for approximately 40 minutes as they were handcuffed. She and White said the officer asked them again if they had drugs and asked to search the car. "I asked him, 'Why do you want to search the car?'" said Johnson. "And he answered, 'There might be a dead body in the trunk.'"
Johnson and White said the officer became agitated when Johnson asked if she could speak to a Watch commander. White said Barfield responded, "You want to play that game? I can arrest you for petty larceny and trespassing." When White asked him what she stole, he said she had stolen cotton from the field.
The couple let the officer search the car, and they said when he found a teabag in White's backpack, he accused him of marijuana possession, and then admitted it was tea when he sniffed the bag. Johnson and White also said they had some cash in their wallets and Barfield interrogated them about the cash as well. They said that after thoroughly inspecting the car, the officer left without apologizing. He also gave them a warning and checked off, "Other" as the reason. White said the second officer did not engage in the same accusatory behavior as Barfield, he stood by and did not intervene.
"At first I thought, 'Well, he's a good cop - he's the cool guy' but he saw the injustice and didn't do anything to stop it," said White. White, who said he visited Myrtle Beach before and was excited to show his girlfriend around the vacation spot, was racked with guilt after the incident. "She had never been in Myrtle before and I said I want to take you there," he said. "For her to end up in handcuffs was just sad, and the whole symbol of picking cotton and all of the negativity associated with that just elevated the fear factor." White said while both of them had been racially profiled before, Johnson had never been handcuffed.
"The look in his eyes when I got handcuffed broke my heart," said Johnson as she began to cry. "Every time I tell this story I cry." Johnson said she's glad the couple's fame has allowed the story to get more attention. "Thank god my job has given me the opportunity to have a voice," she said. "I want to make sure this doesn't happen to my kids or anybody else that drives through that city after me."
Metro was unable to reach Marion County Sheriff's Department for comment, but Sheriff Mark Richardson released a statement saying, "Discrimination in any form, including racial profiling, is strictly prohibited by this department and as Sheriff of Marion County S.C., I can assure you I will take immediate and appropriate action to investigate the allegations of racial profiling made by Mr. White and Ms. Johnson. This matter will be dealt with by an internal investigation within the department and I will also ask the State law Enforcement Division to review the allegation made against Deputy Barfield."
White and Johnson said they heard back from a lieutenant who said the matter was being investigated but have not received a response since.