A Los Angeles police sergeant who was involved in the controversial detention of a “Django Unchained” actress earlier this month told the LAPD’s civilian overseers Tuesday that the department’s disciplinary system was deeply flawed and defended his own response to the incident.
In a rare move for an officer under investigation by the LAPD, Sgt. Jim Parker spoke during the public period of the weekly Police Commission meeting and said he averted a potentially volatile racial controversy by contacting celebrity news site TMZ, which published his recording of the Sept. 11 detention.
The LAPD launched an internal affairs inquiry after actress Daniele Watts and her boyfriend publicly alleged that Parker and two other officers unjustly handcuffed Watts after she refused to identify herself to police.
"I had to make a decision. We were facing another racial, tumultuous incident in L.A.," Parker said. "I said, 'This has to stop right away.' I drove to my work station, grabbed the recording and called TMZ. It stopped the next day."
"Is it against department policy? Yes," Parker said. "Is it the right thing to do? Yes."
Parker called on the commission to look closely at the way officers are disciplined and not rely for information on weekly briefings from department brass. He described Chief Charlie Beck as “one head of a multi-headed snake on this department.”
"If you want to be a commission member to make a difference, you need to make a difference in our discipline system," Parker told the commission. "That's where the issue is.... It is just pathetic what is happening to our people out there."
Parker said the ongoing internal affairs investigation had taken a toll on him.
"I cannot sleep because of what’s happening to me with Chief Beck," he said.
Parker said officers were so upset by how they are treated that many were unsurprised by last year’s rampage of ex-Officer Christopher Dorner, who accused the LAPD of unfairly firing him. Dorner killed four people, including two on-duty officers, and wounded several more before he was fatally shot in a gun battle with police near Big Bear.
The LAPD initially drew criticism following the Sept. 11 stop of Watts and her boyfriend, Brian James Lucas. Lucas wrote on Facebook that police acted as if the couple was engaged in prostitution because Lucas is white and Watts is black.
Lt. Andrew Neiman, a department spokesman, said officers contacted Watts and Lucas in Studio City after receiving a 911 call complaining that a couple were having sex in a car parked on Studio City's Radford Avenue. The 911 caller described the couple as a black woman wearing a shirt and floral shorts and a white man with a black tank top, Neiman said.
A 24-minute audio recording obtained by The Times captured the encounter.
The LAPD opened an internal investigation into the actions of Parker and the two officers, even though the couple had not filed a formal complaint.
In emails obtained by The Times, an internal affairs investigator told Parker last week that although "no official allegations have been framed yet," investigators were looking at a list of possible misconduct: biased policing, conduct unbecoming, unlawful detention, unauthorized use of force and neglect of duty. "Media" was noted as one of the examples of possible instances of misconduct.
In past interviews with The Times, Parker said he was commended privately by many people, including those within the department, for how he handled the detention and the aftermath.
The union that represents rank-and-file officers released a statement Friday calling the department's internal investigation "unwarranted."
"The investigation into this incident brings into the open what many LAPD officers have long claimed; the LAPD disciplinary system is arcane, unfair and needs to be reformed," the statement said.
LAPD Sgt. Albert Gonzalez, a department spokesman, declined to comment on the specific investigation involving Parker. But he said in general, the department did not prohibit officers from speaking to the Police Commission, though they were asked to make comments while off-duty.
Gonzalez said civilians did not have to file formal complaints for the department to initiate an investigation into an officer's actions. He stressed that an internal investigation did not mean an officer was guilty of misconduct.
"The fact that we take a complaint is not an assertion that an officer is guilty," he said. "It's just a reaffirmation that we conduct thorough investigations."
Generally, he said, officers are prohibited from releasing confidential department records -- including audio recordings. He said the rule was designed to protect the integrity of ongoing investigations.
Watts has defended her behavior, writing in a Saturday L.A. Times op-ed that she and Lucas had been stopped four times by law enforcement since late spring.
"Would someone have called the police if it had been a white couple?" she wrote. "Would the sergeant have been so zealous in "investigating" what was clearly not a crime? Does bias have something to do with how and why Brian and I have been stopped this year? I think it probably does."
Beck expressed support for the sergeant and officers earlier this month. The chief 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.
"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."