Still of Danièle Watts in 'Partners'
Still of Danièle Watts in ‘Partners’. Photo courtesy of FX Networks

The Los Angeles Ethics Commission ruled Tuesday that former Los Angeles Police Department Sgt. Jim Parker violated city rules by releasing an audio tape of his conversation with a “Django Unchained” actress during her arrest in 2014, and fined him $500.

Staff had recommended a fine of $10,000, but all four present members of the commission agreed that a more nominal fine was appropriate. Commissioner Ana Dahan was absent.

Lawrence Hanna, Parker’s lawyer, vowed before the hearing to file a lawsuit against the city in Superior Court if the commission levied any fine or if it ruled that Parker had violated any laws.

“This is wrong. It’s not over,” Hanna said to members of the press after the ruling.

All four commissioners said they believed there was a clear violation of the law. The ruling fined Parker $250 for each count he was facing — the disclosure of confidential information and the misuse of position or authority to create a private advantage.

“I believe that in serving the city of L.A., Mr. Parker had an obligation not just to protect the Los Angeles Police Department, but the city of Los Angeles itself,” said commission Vice President Serena Oberstein at the hearing. “By releasing the audio tape, I believe that Mr. Parker violated the City Charter and did not protect the city of L.A. and its process.”

The Ethics Commission enforces city laws regarding governmental ethics, conflicts of interests, campaign financing, and lobbying, but has rarely filed a complaint against a police officer.

Los Angeles Police Protective League President Craig Lally and Acting Director Mark Cronin spoke before the commission in support of Parker. Both recounted times they had released audio recordings of incidents in the field to the media in the past and were not disciplined.

“The problem I have with the Ethics Commission in general, you get to pick and choose who you want to go after,” Lally said. “If you want to you can come after me, because I did the exact same set of circumstances, what I did.”

No one from the commission directly addressed the question of why they chose to examine a case against a police officer.

“This is not about whether or not we agree or disagree with anything Officer Parker has done. It’s not about whether we agree or disagree with the wisdom of the law,” commission President Jessica Levinson said. “It’s not about what has happened in other cases that are not before us which we are not permitted to consider. It’s not about the political climate, as much as we may want to consider this. It is our duty as commissioners just to apply the facts before us.”

Hanna contends that Parker did not violate any city laws or LAPD policies. He said officers have been using audio recorders in the field for decades, the order authorizing their use does not say the recordings are confidential, and no officer has been disciplined previously for releasing audio recordings from the field.

Hanna questioned the motives of the commission and the LAPD in targeting Parker for discipline, saying that the retired sergeant is gay and that could have been motivation, or that Parker continued to defend himself to the media after being ordered not speak publicly about the case.

“You are cowards,” Hanna said to the commission. Later, he added, “We want clarity, that’s all we want. I’m sorry I insulted you, but every officer on the beat has to be thinking about this. This is wrong. Don’t send a message like everybody else is that we are going to beat up on police officers this year when they are dying out there.”

The incident that led to the leaked audio tape occurred on Sept. 11, 2014, when Parker responded to a call of two people engaged in sex in a car parked near Ventura Boulevard and Radford Avenue in Studio City. Parker found Daniele Watts and her boyfriend, Brian James Lucas, standing near a car and police said they matched the description of the couple involved.

Police said Watts refused to give Parker any identification and walked away. Two other officers handcuffed her, but she was let go after Lucas presented them with her identification. The case received significant media attention after Lucas later claimed on Facebook that the officers appeared to believe he and Watts were engaged in prostitution because he is white and she is black.

Watts had a small supporting role in the 2012 film “Django Unchained.”

Four days after the incident, according to an Ethics Commission report, Parker released an audio recording of the encounter to the celebrity news website TMZ because he wanted to counter the claims of racism and to defend himself. The report also said that on Sept. 30, 2014, Parker admitted on the record to the LAPD’s Board of Police Commissioners that he provided the audio recording to TMZ and that he knew doing so violated LAPD policy.

Parker said the LAPD opened an internal affairs inquiry into the incident and also ordered Parker not to speak to the media, but that Parker retired in June 2015 before any investigation was completed.

Watts and Lucas pleaded no contest to disturbing the peace and were ordered to write apology letters to the officers and to the citizens who called the LAPD about their encounter. As part of a deal with prosecutors, charges of lewd conduct were dropped.

In February, the Ethics Commission selected the California Office of Administrative Hearings to serve as the administrative hearing officer in the case, and Administrative Law Judge Samuel Reyes later determined that Parker violated city law but recommended no penalty. However, Ethics Commission staff has recommended that the commission adopt Reyes’ factual findings but impose a penalty of $10,000.

Hanna said the only way for the commission to compel Parker to pay any fine would be to file a civil lawsuit, which would likely cost far more than the potential $500 it would be seeking to recover.

—City News Service

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