James Hammett

James Hammett

The East Baton Rouge sheriff's deputy who fatally shot a suspect in September resigned from his job shortly thereafter — not because of the shooting investigation, but because his colleague distributed a photo of him sporting what appears to be a fake gang tattoo that within some circles signifies the wearer's first kill.

James Hammett resigned about a month after the shooting but officials offered little information to explain his departure until Friday, following inquiries from local media.

Hammett's superiors found out about the fake teardrop tattoo when another deputy, Kayla Clark, sent the photo via text message to their uniform patrol captain, who then notified his supervisor, according to a statement from the sheriff's office. 

The photo, which was apparently meant as a joke, shows Hammett in uniform with a teardrop drawn under his left eye. A screenshot of the text exchange shows the picture was sent with the accompanying caption: "Earned his stripes."

Clark submitted her resignation one week after sending the picture, citing family responsibilities and scheduling issues, officials said. That was after the agency's internal affairs division announced an investigation would be conducted.

Hammett resigned the following week.

Both deputies provided some explanation for the photo during counseling sessions with their supervisors before resigning. But they didn't mention the widely accepted meaning of teardrop tattoos, which are most common among gang members who have served time in prison. The purpose of such markings is most often to show off past acts of violence. The phrase "earning stripes" also sometimes refers to gang membership. 

Clark said she was trying to cheer up Hammett because he was relegated to desk duty pending an outcome in the shooting investigation. She said the picture referenced his sadness "doing time" on administrative duty, according to the sheriff's office. Hammet also said he felt Clark "was being silly in an effort to cheer him up."

Clark sent the photo to Capt. Jared Ruiz on Oct. 11, according to the sheriff's office. The screenshot provided to the media shows that Clark also told Ruiz she was forwarding the photo to Maj. Ricky Klug, who oversees all of uniform patrol. It appears Ruiz texted back: "You better not."

Sheriff's office spokeswoman Casey Rayborn Hicks said neither Hammett nor Clark had any prior disciplinary actions or internal affairs investigations. Hicks declined to comment further on the issue.

Hammett had returned to work in early October after being placed on paid administrative leave following the Sept. 14 shooting, which left Melvin Watkins, 54, dead outside his relative's house in Baton Rouge's Highland Club subdivision. Watkins had become violent at a family birthday party, prompting someone to call 911 for help.

Aidan Reynolds, an attorney representing Watkins' family, said he was "literally shocked" when he learned about the photo on Friday.

"We all know what a teardrop tattoo signifies," he said. "Taking a human life is never a joking matter. … Mocking the dead and their families is reprehensible. It shocks the conscience, especially when we're talking about law enforcement officers who took an oath to serve and protect — and respect — our community."

The sheriff's office said last month that Watkins was driving away from the scene when he apparently tried to run down Hammett. The deputy had been dispatched after Watkins started arguing with another man at the party, then plunged a screwdriver into the door before other attendees asked him to leave and called the police to have him escorted from the premises, family members said in the days following his death.

Watkins' wife filed a wrongful death lawsuit not long after the shooting, arguing he was just trying to peacefully leave the scene when Hammett arrived and almost immediately fired his service weapon. 

Hammett joined the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office in August 2018, according to records contained in his personnel file. 

Both he and Clark worked at the agency's Kleinpeter substation on Airline Highway in the southeast corner of the parish. They also both had prior law enforcement experience before moving to the sheriff's office: Hammett worked for the state Department of Public Safety's capitol detail and Clark for the Livingston Parish Sheriff's Office. It's unclear how long they spent at those agencies.

Clark was named "patrol deputy of the month" for the Kleinpeter substation in June 2019, according to her personnel records. She joined the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office in April 2018.

Email Lea Skene at lskene@theadvocate.com.