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LA can’t keep lid on inadvertently released headshots of undercover cops

The judge said there was no urgent need for temporary restraining order but agreed to advance the hearing over ownership of the disputed photos.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — The city of Los Angeles failed to persuade a state court judge to stop a journalist and an activist group from disseminating about 9,300 headshots of police officers that include inadvertently released photos of undercover officers.

California Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff on Tuesday denied the city's request for a temporary restraining order. The judge, however, agreed to move forward to next month a hearing, which had been set for August, on the city's request to claw back the images it turned over last year under a settlement with journalist Ben Camacho, who had asked for them under the California Public Records Act.

"There is no exigency and counsel has delayed in bringing this application," the judge said in a minute order after the hearing.

This month the city sued Camacho and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, which runs the "Watch the Watchers" website where the officers' pictures are posted, claiming they have rebuffed requests for the return of the flash drive with the officers' headshots it gave to Camacho last year as part of the settlement and for all copies of the photographs to be destroyed.

On Monday, the city asked the judge to bar Camacho and Stop LAPD Spying from transferring, concealing, removing or otherwise disposing of the flash drive. According to the city's request, absent such an order there is a risk it won't be able to recover the photos should the judge agree with them that Camacho and Stop LAPD Spying have to return them.

"Absent a TRO, the city faces the immediate risk that defendants will further transfer the exempt records or attempt to conceal them from a claw-back order," lawyers with the LA city attorney's office said in the request.

When asked why the city thinks the defendants will transfer or conceal the photos, or to whom, and why the city felt the need to file a request the judge said there was no urgent need for, a representative for the city's attorney declined to comment.

At Tuesday's hearing, Beckloff expressed some confusion about what exactly the city wanted him to do, given that the the headshots are already posted on the "Watch the Watchers" site and the city didn't ask him to take down the website. He ultimately concluded the request was to prevent further dissemination of the photos.

Camacho and Stop LAPD Spying have argued that the city's request for a temporary restraining order amounted to illegal prior restraint of free speech.

The headshots, Camacho's lawyer Susan Seager told the judge, are in the public interest and were lawfully obtained. There's no danger that the images will be destroyed, she said.

Camacho said in a declaration filed in court that he asked for the LAPD headshots in 2021 because, among other reasons, he may use them in a documentary he's working on about an LAPD investigation and because he wants to use them to identify police officers who he has observed shining flashlights in journalists' cameras to prevent them from filming the officers.

"These photographs of the LAPD officers are a matter of public interest because journalists need to inform the public about the identities of police officers when they are working in public, especially when the officers are involved in matters of public interest," Camacho said. "It is a matter of public interest to be able to identify police officers who arrest protesters and photojournalists, citizen journalists, and who shine their flashlights in our cameras when we are trying to film officers working in public."

The city had initially refused to turn over the headshots but after Camacho sued, it agreed to do so as part of a settlement. The city, however, didn't intend to include the photos of police officers that work undercover, which it claims are exempt under the California Public Records Act.

In Monday's request, the city stressed that public servants, from health officials to election worker to public safety officers, are increasingly being berated and harassed, and that there will always be a tension between the public’s legitimate right to know and a person’s equally legitimate right to privacy, even when that person is a public servant.

"There also is tension between the public’s right to know and the legitimate interests of government in doing its job — especially when it comes to the sensitive, difficult, and often dangerous work of law enforcement, particularly in an undercover capacity," the city argued.

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Categories / Government, Media, Regional

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