Actors Dennis White and Cherie Johnson pose together for a photo on September 27. (Photo/Cherie Johnson/iReport)
by Katie Hawkins-Gaar and Alan Duke
(CNN) — Hollywood couple Cherie Johnson and Dennis White say they were improperly stopped by police, put in handcuffs, and harshly questioned during a recent weekend getaway in South Carolina. They claim the incident took place because of their race.
Johnson, best known for her roles in TV shows “Punky Brewster” and “Family Matters,” and White, from the movie “Notorious,” are speaking out about their treatment by a Marion County sheriff’s deputy on September 22.
“I’ve been stopped by the police before, but I’ve never been fearful for my life,” Johnson told CNN on Sunday. “They need some kind of sensitivity training.”
The Marion County sheriff issued a statement on Monday promising to investigate the allegations of racial profiling.
The couple, who were in the area after conducting an acting workshop in North Carolina, shared White’s account with freelance writer Krystol Diggs, who posted it to CNN iReport. CNN could not independently verify their account, but spoke directly to Johnson and Diggs about the incident.
Johnson and White say they were on their way to Myrtle Beach for a quick romantic getaway when they pulled off the rural highway and parked by a cotton field. Johnson said she had never seen cotton before and told White she wanted to take a picture.
As the couple walked back to the car, they said they noticed a police car with its lights on, parked behind theirs. White and Johnson, who are both African-American, say the White officer harshly questioned them about drugs — he found none — and the cash he found in their bags.
Johnson was the national cheer representative for the Just Say No to Drugs campaign in the ’80s.
According to White’s account, Officer Shad Barfield told Johnson there was a warrant for her arrest — which she disputed, and the officer later recanted. He handcuffed White, then Johnson, but did not arrest them.
“He told me … I was being detained for his safety because he didn’t know me,” Johnson said.
“At this time I became distraught,” White wrote in his account of the incident. “I have been racially profiled several times in my lifetime but it touched my core when my woman was included.”
Marion County Sheriff Mark Richardson issued a statement on Monday in regard to the actors’ claims: “Discrimination in any form, including racial profiling, is strictly prohibited by this department and as Sheriff of Marion County SC, 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.”
It was Johnson’s first experience being handcuffed. Several of her family members work in law enforcement, Johnson said, adding that she’s “never been afraid of cops or had bad opinions of them.”
This time was different.
After thoroughly searching the car, the officer removed the handcuffs and let the couple go.
“No apology, no nothing,” White wrote.
White says he won’t stop talking about the incident until “that racist cop” is reprimanded and punished.
“At no point in history is this justified, especially not in this day and age,” he wrote.
By Monday morning, the story had received nearly 700,000 views — making it the fourth most-viewed iReport of all time — and hundreds of comments about racial profiling and law enforcement in South Carolina and elsewhere. Many readers said they had experienced similar situations.
Actress Kinnick Sky was among those who shared the story on her Facebook page. Sky, who was born and raised in Columbia, South Carolina, said she knew White and Johnson’s account “to be absolutely true.”
“I was like, ‘Wow, boy can I relate,’ because I am fearful of the cops as a whole, especially in South Carolina. My experiences have always been horrible.”
The former “American Idol” finalist said whenever she returns from Los Angeles to her hometown she gets stopped by police “80% of the time” and questioned about drugs. On a recent trip she was “stopped, pulled over and questioned about every drug known to man,” she said.
Her account is strikingly similar to what Johnson and White said they experienced. Johnson said she contacted Marion County for an incident report but was told that one was never filed. In the meantime, she’s voicing her views on Twitter and Facebook so others can know what she and White went through.
“I’ve always been a fan of speaking up and sharing your story,” Johnson said. “We’re way more powerful in numbers than we are alone.”