The long-running saga involving a Los Angeles police sergeant and an actress from “Django Unchained” wound its way into a downtown courtroom Monday, where a judge heard arguments over whether that sergeant violated city ethics rules by leaking a recording of the controversial stop to the media.
Monday’s hearing marked the latest in the Los Angeles Ethics Commission’s action against now-retired Sgt. Jim Parker, a highly unusual case that has been closely watched within the L.A. Police Department.
No one questions whether Parker released the recording — he’s admitted that in interviews with reporters, at a Police Commission meeting and again while testifying Monday. Instead, the case hinges on whether that recording was confidential and thus, whether Parker violated city rules by making it public.
Ethics officials allege he did just that, accusing Parker of unlawfully sharing confidential information without authorization and doing so to “create a private advantage for himself.”
Sergio Perez, the Ethics Commission’s director of enforcement, accused Parker of releasing the tape because he faced criticism over the encounter. City employees, he said, shouldn’t be allowed to “disclose whatever information they’d like for whatever reason they’d like.”
“By releasing that tape, Mr. Parker violated law,” Perez said. “Mr. Parker knows that it was wrong.”
Parker’s attorney, Larry Hanna, insisted that the tape wasn’t confidential and that his client was being unfairly targeted for defending himself. Hanna pointed to other LAPD officers who aired similar recordings in small claims court or on national television — including “Judge Judy” — without being punished.
“Officers have been doing this for years,” Hanna said.
If the administrative law judge overseeing the case, Samuel D. Reyes, decides Parker violated the ethics rules, the retired sergeant faces a fine of up to $10,000.
The case stems from a headline-grabbing stop Parker made in September 2014, when he responded to a report of a couple having sex in a car parked near a Studio City talent agency. There, he found actress Daniele Watts and her boyfriend, Brian James Lucas, who police say matched the description of the couple involved.
When Parker asked for their identification, police said, Watts refused and walked away. She was handcuffed down the street by two other officers, but released after her boyfriend handed police her ID.
The story quickly gained national attention after the couple publicly complained about the way Watts was treated. Lucas wrote on Facebook that police acted as though the couple had been engaged in prostitution because he is white and Watts is black.
The LAPD opened an internal affairs inquiry into the allegations. Parker defended his actions and released a 24-minute audio recording of the encounter, captured on a personal recorder he kept in his pocket.
The recording quieted some of the criticism levied against Parker and the LAPD, and prompted some backlash against the couple’s comments. Watts and Lucas later pleaded no contest to disturbing the peace and were ordered to write apology letters to the officers and citizens who reported them.
Parker was accused of insubordination for speaking to the media about the incident without the department’s permission, he said. He was ordered to attend a disciplinary hearing but retired instead, ending his 26-year career with the LAPD.
In November, the Ethics Commission announced its accusations against Parker.
On Monday, much of the discussion focused on LAPD policies and directives, which both Perez and Hanna used to try to make their point. Parker again defended his decision to release the tape, saying he was trying to quell accusations that he was racist.
A handful of LAPD officers also took the stand, including a captain who oversees internal investigations who said he believed recordings from an officer’s personal device are considered confidential information. The president and a director with the union that represents rank-and-file officers also testified, saying they had publicly aired personal recordings.
Craig Lally, the union’s president, told the judge that he once gave a tape to journalist Diane Sawyer. The recording was of a conversation Lally had with Nicole Brown Simpson after responding to a call at her Bundy Drive home, six months before she was killed.
“Did anybody from the Ethics Commission come and knock on your door and say, ‘Shame on you?’ ” Hanna asked.
“No,” Lally replied.
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