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Ex-LAPD sergeant broke city rules by leaking recording of ‘Django Unchained’ actress, ethics group says

Attorney Larry Hanna, center, told reporters he would pursue legal action after the city's Ethics Commission ruled Hanna's client, retired Sgt. Jim Parker, violated city ethics rules.
(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

The outcry began with a Facebook post: An actress, known for her role in “Django Unchained,” and her boyfriend accused a white Los Angeles police officer of mistreating her because she was black.

The accusation touched a nerve at a time of increased public scrutiny of police, particularly how officers interact with African Americans.

But within days of Daniele Watts’ story going viral, a backlash began when an LAPD sergeant released an audio recording revealing what had happened during the controversial encounter.

Watts and her boyfriend ended up being convicted of disturbing the peace and were ordered by a judge to apologize to the officers and others in connection with the incident. Sgt. Jim Parker left his job, retiring early to avoid potential punishment over the episode — another casualty of a public spectacle over a 30-minute police stop.

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On Tuesday, the L.A. City Ethics Commission brought the two-year, headline-grabbing saga to an end — at least for now — when the panel determined that Parker violated ethics rules by leaking the recording to reporters.

In a nod to what commissioners repeatedly characterized as the unusual nature of the case, however, they unanimously agreed to fine Parker $500, far less than the $10,000 maximum penalty he faced.

“This is not about whether or not we agree or disagree with anything that Officer Parker has done,” said Jessica Levinson, president of the Ethics Commission. “This is our duty, as commissioners, to apply just the facts before us.”

“It is a violation,” said Commissioner Andrea Sheridan Ordin, who previously served on the civilian board that oversees the LAPD. “The question is: What are the appropriate consequences?”

Parker’s attorney criticized the decision, insisting his client didn’t break the city rules and promising to pursue legal action.

Parker laughed when a Times reporter called him with the news.

“Two years, and how much money and time was invested by the city?” he said. “For a $500 judgment?”

No one questioned whether Parker shared the recording — he has admitted that in interviews with reporters, at a Police Commission meeting and again during a hearing this fall before an administrative law judge. Instead, the case hinged on whether that recording was confidential and thus, whether Parker violated ethics rules by making it public.

It was an unusual case for ethics investigators to take on — most of the board’s actions involve campaign finance violations. The case has been closely watched by those within the LAPD, including the high-ranking members of the police union who have testified on Parker’s behalf.

“Honestly, I’ve never heard of the Ethics Commission until Sgt. Parker’s case.”

Craig Lally, president of LAPD officers’ union

Union officials have accused the Ethics Commission of setting a precedent in which the board can unfairly penalize rank-and-file officers for breaking rules that the officers might not be aware of.

“They’re very worried because they don’t know what the rules of the game are,” said Craig Lally, president of the police union. “Honestly, I’ve never heard of the Ethics Commission until Sgt. Parker’s case.”

The inquiry stems from a report of a couple having sex in a car parked near a Studio City talent agency in 2014. When Parker arrived, he found Watts and her boyfriend, Brian James Lucas, who later wrote on Facebook that police acted as if the couple had been engaged in prostitution because Lucas is white and Watts is black.

The story quickly drew national attention, and the LAPD launched an internal investigation. Parker defended his actions and released a 24-minute audio clip of the encounter, captured on the recorder he kept in his pocket.

“Do you know how many times I’ve been called, the cops have been called, just for being black?” Watts said on the recording. “Just because we’re black and he’s white? I’m just being really honest, sir.”

“Who brought up the race card?” Parker said.

“I’m bringing it up,” she said.

“I said nothing about you being black,” Parker said.

Watts and Lucas later were charged with lewd conduct. Those charges were dropped as part of a deal in which they pleaded no contest to disturbing the peace and had to write letters apologizing to the officers and citizens who reported them.

Parker, meanwhile, continued to defend his actions as his attorneys fought the ethics investigation.

In September, both sides made their arguments before an administrative law judge during a two-day hearing. Ethics officials accused Parker of improperly releasing the recording because he faced criticism over the encounter. Parker’s attorney, Larry Hanna, insisted that the tape wasn’t confidential and said his client was being unfairly targeted for defending himself.

In his written recommendation to the Ethics Commission, Judge Samuel D. Reyes said he believed Parker broke the rules. But, the judge said, because of vague LAPD policy and because Parker didn’t financially benefit from releasing the audio, he did not believe Parker should be fined.

Top officials within the Ethics Commission’s enforcement section disagreed, urging the board to fine Parker the maximum $10,000. Finding him guilty of the violations without issuing a financial penalty, they wrote to the panel, would “serve as nothing more than empty words on paper.”

The head of that enforcement section, Sergio Perez, said in a statement after Tuesday’s decision that the commission “takes seriously” its mandate to enforce city laws.

The ruling, he added, sends “a strong message that this agency is committed to promoting trust in our city’s government.”

kate.mather@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @katemather

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UPDATES:

7:20 p.m.: This article was rewritten throughout and now includes comments from the Ethics Commission, Sgt. Jim Parker and Craig Lally, the president of the police union.

This article was originally published at 11:15 a.m.


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