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LA fails in bid to claw back police officer headshots

The city has said it mistakenly released photos of undercover officers in response to a Public Records Act request.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A Los Angeles County judge on Wednesday rejected a bid by the city of Los Angeles to order a journalist to return photographs of LAPD officers he obtained from the city via a Public Records Act request.

The city has claimed that some of the photos it gave journalist Ben Camacho revealed the identity of undercover police officers. But Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff said the city had failed to produce admissible evidence to support that claim.

In court on Wednesday, Deputy City Attorney Joseph Persoff asked the judge to allow testimony from an LAPD commander about the identity of the officers in the photos.

"All I can say is this involves very sensitive information, so we are tiptoeing around," Persoff said. "We're asking the court to exercise discretion, and listen to what the commander has to say."

But the judge said it was too late, repeatedly chastising the city for not offering up evidence sooner. He even expressed exasperation, saying at one point, "I'm at a loss."

"It wouldn’t be hard to have a technician come in and say, 'I made a mistake, I included the material," Judge Beckloff said. "There’s not even any evidence from a John Doe police officer saying, 'I’m an undercover officer, this website has posted my picture.' There’s lots of ways the city could’ve proven that the defendants have exempt material."

Camacho's attorney Susan Seager said after the hearing, "We’re glad the court saw through the city’s lawsuit, that it was based on a lot of hysteria, but no real facts."

In October 2021, Camacho, then a freelance journalist, now the photo editor for the progressive nonprofit news website KnockLA (founded by activists from Ground Game LA), filed a Public Records Act request for "the most up-to-date roster of LAPD names, badge numbers, serial numbers, division, sworn status" as well as the headshots of every officer. The police department gave Camacho the list of names and some of the information, but declined to provide the photographs. Camacho filed a lawsuit; eventually, a settlement was reached, and the city agreed to provide the photos, excluding those of undercover officers.

The City Attorney's Office handed Camacho a flash drive containing more than 9,000 headshots. Camacho gave the photographs to the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, an activist group, which uploaded the images onto a website they manage, Watch the Watchers, a searchable database of most LAPD officers, including their name, email, rank, serial number, and salary.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League, or LAPPL, was irate. In a letter to the police commission, it said that the department had "released, and not redacted, the names and photographs of officers engaged in sensitive investigative assignments, placing their lives and the lives of their families in extreme jeopardy and peril." Just what they meant by "sensitive investigative assignments" has never even made entirely clear.

In March, the police union sued the city, calling the release of the photos "one of the worst security breaches in recent memory," and said city had given out "service photographs of undercover officers without notifying any of the affected officers." Nine days later, the city sued Camacho and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition seeking to "protect the lives of law enforcement officers currently serving in sensitive assignments whose identities were compromised by the inadvertent release of their photographs pursuant to a California Public Records Act response," according to the complaint.

Shortly after the lawsuit was filed, newly elected Mayor Karen Bass said that she was "very worried" that the release of the photos would increase the number of police officers leaving the LAPD. She added that it was "an egregious mistake."

Two weeks later, the LAPPL said it was dropping its lawsuit against the city.

"The city isn't really trying to protect undercover officers," Seager said. "There’s something else going on. There's a fight between the LA police union and chief, and they're using Ben Camacho and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition as pawns."

She added: "We think they’ve changed the definition of 'undercover' to be so broad that it would include the entire police force. They changed the definition of undercover because the police union got mad."

A spokesperson for the City Attorney's Office declined to comment on the ruling.

In a written declaration, an LAPD captain expressed the fear that the Watch the Watchers website will lead to police officers being targeted for abuse or even physical violence.

Before they sued the city, the police union sued activist Steven Sutcliffe, who manages the website www.killercop.com and tweets under the name, "@killercop1984." The complaint said that some of Sutcliffe's tweets amounted to threats against police officers or promises to pay a bounty for others to kill cops. After the Watchers website went up, Sutcliffe tweeted, "We have now #published over 9000 names and head-shots of numerous regular and #undercover #LAPD officers on ⋊i ɘɿɔoq.ɔom online. A to Z. Let the games begin!! Remember, nobody pays more for LAPD head-shots than ⋊i ɘɿɔoq.ɔom Payback time!"

Sutcliffe, who has no connection to the Stop LAPD Lying Coalition, has since been suspended from Twitter.

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