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Criminal Justice

LA's Release Of Officers' Photos Touches Off A Legal Mess

L.A. City Hall is lighted at night as protester gather at a nearby intersection.
The scene outside LAPD headquarters during a January protest denouncing the fatal police beating of Tyre Nichols.
(Frederic J. Brown
AFP via Getty Images)
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The settlement of a lawsuit filed over a prolonged California Public Records Act request has the press, the city of Los Angeles, the LAPD, the police union, and certain police officers, all blaming — and in some cases suing — each other.

On Wednesday, the city filed a lawsuit against the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition and Knock L.A. reporter Ben Camacho, along with 50 other unnamed defendants, seeking the return of photos of certain police officers Camacho obtained via a public records request he submitted to the LAPD in 2021.

The alleged mishandling of the data has led the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union representing rank-and-file officers, to sue LAPD Chief Michel Moore, and over 300 officers who claim to work in sensitive assignments have filed legal claims (the precursor to a lawsuit) against the city and the LAPD.

Camacho's 2021 request was initially denied because it was deemed too “burdensome,” referring particularly to photos he requested of all active LAPD officers. Camacho went to court to compel release of the information, and the subsequent settlement granted him the pictures, names, and work locations of over 9,000 officers, with the caveat that current undercover officers would be excluded.

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In 2022, Camacho provided the LAPD and the city with a flash drive for the records; once the flash drive was returned, he posted the database online.

Apparently unknown to the city and the LAPD at the time, Camacho had been given the names and photographs of undercover officers, or at least of officers working in sensitive assignments, though the database does not specify which of the officers are in those categories.

Last month the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, a group that works to curb police surveillance, used the data to create a searchable website called Watch The Watchers. Shortly after the website went live, officers became aware the information had been released, and the backlash began.

Camacho: There was no mistake

In response to the city's suit, Camacho's legal team issued a statement challenging the narrative that the city accidentally provided certain information.

"The disclosure was not 'inadvertent' or a 'mistake,'" it said, adding, "[the] City purposely gave Ben the photos, minus undercover officers, and now is trying to rewrite history by claiming it wishes it had withheld photos of both undercover officers and officers who 'serve in sensitive assignments.'"

The statement continued: "This is an impossibly broad category of officers that could include just about any officer's work at some point during their career."

In remarks to the Los Angeles Times, LAPPL lawyer Robert Rico said the union defines "undercover" more broadly than the general public.

"For example, we have officers that surveil. They’re not undercover, in other words, they don’t have disguises, they didn’t have beards grown out," he said. "But they do work on details surveilling home invasion robbers, people that are involved in potential domestic terrorism."

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That pesky First Amendment

Camacho's legal team said a court order to return the photos would violate the First Amendment.

Free speech experts agree, saying the city's suit doesn't have a legal leg to stand on. David Loy, Director of the First Amendment Coalition, noted Thursday on AirTalk that, “as the city's own lawsuit acknowledges, Mr. Camacho sued the city, settled that lawsuit in good faith with the city, and was entitled to rely upon the city's representation as to who it deemed to be undercover and who it did not by virtue of the photographs that it produced.”

The First Amendment “absolutely prohibits the government from telling people what they can and cannot say about information that the government itself produced," Loy added. "Even if it was a mistake to produce all of the photos, the government cannot stop you from publishing information that the government itself has given you.”

In an interview with LAist, Camacho said if the photos of undercover officers should not have been included, "that's not on me ... I think it's just really that simple."

Camacho and Knock L.A. have condemned the city for the negligence L.A. officials are now laying at the feet of the press.

Officers 'have had threats made against them'

Attorney Matthew McNicholas, the lawyer representing the officers who filed legal claims, said on AirTalk Thursday that the inclusion of active undercover officers' photos makes the case more complicated.

“I'm aware of four or five of my 300 clients who have had to stop operations, who have had threats made against them and their family," he said.

McNicholas called the settlement agreement reached with Camacho "woefully inadequate."

Three officers filed a lawsuit in March against Steven Sutcliffe, the owner of the Killer Cop website, which posted data from the database provided to Camacho. The suit claims Sutcliffe's Twitter account put out a "bounty" on them.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Sutcliffe called the suit "vindictive and frivolous" and "filled with lies." His Twitter account has been suspended, and his website now carries a message saying, "This domain has been seized by the Los Angeles Police Department speech division."

Libby Rainey contributed to this report.

This story was updated to include the statement from Camacho's legal team and Rico's remarks to the Los Angeles Times.

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