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Los Angeles Tries to Claw Back Public Records After Police Invent New Definition of “Undercover”

Last week, the city of Los Angeles filed a lawsuit against Ben Camacho, a local journalist, as well as the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, a community watchdog group that opposes police surveillance, in an attempt to censor a database of Los Angeles Police Department officer headshot photos. The lawsuit alleges that Camacho and the watchdog group are in “wrongful possession” of 9,310 headshots, which the city itself released to Camacho as part of a settlement in response to a public records lawsuit.

The city’s lawsuit was denounced as meritless by First Amendment experts. “Once the government gives you information in good faith, you have the right to publish it under the First Amendment,” David Loy, legal director of the First Amendment Coalition, told The Intercept. “This is not even a close case.”

The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition launched a website called Watch the Watchers that includes the LAPD headshots. The dataset has also been published by Distributed Denial of Secrets, or DDoSecrets, using the censorship-resistant technology BitTorrent, and posted on the Internet Archive. Even if the court ruled in favor of the city, these public records have long since escaped the LAPD’s grasp.

“This lawsuit is a political stunt. It’s a desperation play,” Loy said. “And as a practical matter, there’s nothing a court can do. You cannot scrub the internet of everything.”

“This lawsuit is a political stunt. It’s a desperation play.”

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, a private police union that lobbies on behalf of LAPD officers, has launched its own lawsuit against the city and the LAPD for releasing the records, and 321 allegedly undercover LAPD officers announced their intention to file a separate class-action suit seeking damages for negligence.

Camacho believes that the city is attempting to “save face on the other front that they’re fighting with the police union.” He told The Intercept that he sees the lawsuit against him as “intimidation and scapegoating.” In addition to demanding that he “give everything back and delete copies,” Camacho said, the lawsuit insisted that he “never, ever share these photos ever again. That’s huge violation of my First Amendment freedom of the press.”

LAPD’s media relations division declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. The police union did not respond to a request for comment.

At its core, this case appears to be about the definition of the word “undercover.” The flash drive full of LAPD headshots that the city gave Camacho excluded undercover officers. But after the police union took note of the Watch the Watchers website, they argued for a vastly expanded definition of the word in an effort to claw back the public records.

According to an interview in the Los Angeles Times by the union’s legal counsel, Robert Rico, the expanded definition of “undercover” includes any officer who conducts surveillance (even if they wear normal police uniforms) and any officer who has worked undercover or at a sensitive assignment in the past. The union’s director, Jamie McBride, argued in a TV interview that it should also include any officer who may work undercover in the future.

To Shakeer Rahman, an attorney with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, the implications are troubling. “They’re openly calling for a secret police force,” Rahman said.

California Public Records Act

Camacho is an LA-based journalist and filmmaker who writes for the local nonprofit newsroom Knock LA. Last year, he published a detailed investigation into a group of Santa Ana police officers who received numerous complaints without facing any discipline — and who all shared gang-like skull tattoos. In one incident, five off-duty members of this police gang allegedly harassed two 15-year-old girls at a restaurant, one of whom said she was sexually assaulted. Camacho’s reporting relied in part on Santa Ana police officer headshots, which he had obtained through a California Public Records Act request.

In October 2021, Camacho filed a similar request to the LAPD. According to the lawsuit Camacho later filed against Los Angeles, the city initially refused to hand over the headshots, claiming that the department did not have any responsive records. LAPD further claimed that it didn’t possess any headshots in digital format and that locating the “negatives” would be “unduly burdensome.”

Camacho’s Public Records Act lawsuit argued that LAPD’s response was “utterly implausible” because the police department regularly published headshots of its officers in its own promotional material. Camacho pointed to headshots of LAPD command staff on the department’s website and headshots of officers published on Facebook and Twitter.

In the resulting settlement, the city agreed to hand over photos of all LAPD officers except for those who worked undercover. The city’s attorney estimated that fewer than 100 officers were working undercover and would be excluded from the release, according to an email Camacho published on Twitter.

In September 2022, Los Angeles gave Camacho a flash drive containing 9,310 headshots of LAPD officers. It wasn’t until six months later that the city, the LAPD, and the police union all claimed that headshots of undercover officers were accidentally included on the drive.

LAPD publishes officer headshots on social media.

LAPD headshots the department posted on social media.

Screenshot: The Intercept. Source: Public Records Act lawsuit

Watching the Watchers

Last month, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition launched Watch the Watchers, which allows the public to look up LAPD officers by name to see their headshots and includes information such as serial numbers, ranks, ethnicities, and email addresses — all public information that LAPD itself publishes. “This website is intended as a tool to empower community members engaged in copwatch and other countersurveillance practices,” the website states. “You can use it to identify officers who are causing harm in your community.”

“LAPD has always published full rosters of all of its officers,” Rahman said. “They had already published a roster of all of those names, identities, rank, positions, division. These aren’t secret identities. They’re very, very public.”

“These aren’t secret identities. They’re very, very public.”

The day after the website launched, Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore apologized in an email to LAPD personnel and announced an internal investigation into how the headshots got released. During a March 21 meeting of Los Angeles police commissioners, Commission President William Briggs characterized the lawfully obtained public records as “private data” and argued that Watch the Watchers would be used to harm officers and their families, aid foreign spies, and help cartels and other criminal organizations. At the same meeting, Moore emphasized that release of the LAPD headshots was “consistent with the California Public Records Act request and is a requirement as a public agency.”

“The Police Commission believes in transparency and we welcome the public’s interest and questions,” Briggs said in a statement to The Intercept. “However, the Commission is right to question the intent behind the availability of this disclosure and to be concerned about the safety and wellbeing of the officers and their families.”

The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition insists that access to the headshots is necessary because oversight bodies have routinely failed to keep police misconduct in check. “We’re not publishing their home addresses, we’re not publishing things that are outside their role as police officers,” Hamid Khan, a coordinator with Stop LAPD Spying, told the Los Angeles Times.

Things only heated up from there.

The police union launched a lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles and the police chief on March 28, claiming that the city had “perpetrated one of the worst security breaches in recent memory, releasing service photographs of undercover officers pursuant to California Public Records Act request,” and that undercover officers “now face potentially grave risks as a direct result of the City’s actions.” On April 4, 321 LAPD officers whose headshots were published on the Watch the Watchers site, who allegedly do undercover police work, announced their intention to file a class-action lawsuit against the city, the LAPD, and its leadership.

Changing the Rules

Two days after the police union filed suit, an attorney for the city sent Camacho a letter threatening legal action if he did not return the flash drive and “all digital copies of records obtained from that drive.”

The attorney argued that in the Public Records Act settlement, the city had agreed to exclude undercover officers but had accidentally included some anyway. Because of this, he argued that the dataset Camacho had was illegally obtained. He stated that the city could only give Camacho a copy of the headshots of high-ranking officers that are already published on the LAPD website and that it couldn’t release headshots for anyone else — otherwise, it would be possible to figure out who the undercover officers were based on which headshots were excluded. In other words, the attorney argued that the city didn’t need to comply with the settlement.

Loy, the legal director of First Amendment Coalition, said that the city initially did exactly what it agreed to do: It provided Camacho with photos of officers who weren’t undercover. But after other officers complained, “they tried to change the rules in the middle of the game” by redefining what “undercover” means after the fact. “This was not a genuinely inadvertent disclosure. This is a case where they made a choice. They just now want to take their choice back.”

On April 5, the city of Los Angeles filed a lawsuit against Camacho and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, demanding that they immediately return the flash drive and all digital copies of the LAPD headshots. Notably, the complaint demanded the return of all these public records, not just those related to undercover officers.

The following day, DDoSecrets published the LAPD headshots both on its website as well as using BitTorrent. With BitTorrent, internet users around the world collectively host copies of the same files, making attempts at censoring those files nearly impossible so long as enough people are participating.

This isn’t the first time DDoSecrets has published law enforcement data. In 2020, during the height of the Black Lives Matter uprising sparked by the police murder of George Floyd, DDoSecrets published 270GB of documents from hundreds of law enforcement fusion center websites known collectively as BlueLeaks. Many newsrooms, including The Intercept, reported extensively on that dataset. At the request of the FBI, German authorities seized a server operated by DDoSecrets in order to suppress BlueLeaks. But since the BlueLeaks data was also shared on BitTorrent, that censorship effort failed. And unlike the BlueLeaks data, which was illegally obtained by a hacker, the LAPD headshots are lawfully obtained public records.

A copy of the LAPD headshots was also posted to the Internet Archive, an online digital library that has a strong history of fighting legal requests.

The LAPD headshots have already spread far beyond the reach of the LAPD. Considering that the Watch the Watchers website has been up for weeks and that Camacho also posted a raw copy of the dataset on Twitter, it should be clear to the city’s attorneys that they’re not going to be able to put the toothpaste back in the tube.

“The reason that they’re suing us is not because it’s practically feasible to bring the records down,” Rahman, the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition attorney, told The Intercept. “They’re working to appease the very powerful police union. … No matter how legally frivolous it is, it’s politically worth it for them for that reason. Hopefully, at some point, they wake up and realize that calculus is wrong and that suing community groups and journalists for publishing public records that they themselves made public is absolutely absurd.”

The post Los Angeles Tries to Claw Back Public Records After Police Invent New Definition of “Undercover” appeared first on The Intercept.

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