Ben Camacho, a reporter for the nonprofit community journalism outlet Knock LA, was sued by the City of Los Angeles on April 5, 2023, in an attempt to force the return of photographs of police officers released to him as part of a public records request.
Camacho told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker he noticed a pattern of Los Angeles Police Department officers obscuring their identities at protests by shining lights into cameras and refusing to disclose their badge numbers. Camacho filed a request under California’s Public Records Act seeking a full roster of LAPD officers and their personnel headshots in October 2021, having had success earlier that year with a similar request in Santa Ana.
In January 2022, the department responded that it could provide the roster but not the photographs, as they weren’t digitized. Camacho filed a lawsuit challenging that refusal, and the City of Los Angeles ultimately gave him the images on Sept. 16 as part of a settlement agreement. The city provided Camacho a printed roster of sworn officers, a flash drive containing 9,310 officers’ photos and a letter explaining that officers working in undercover assignments had been excluded from the disclosures.
Camacho said that approximately two months after he received the files, activist group Stop LAPD Spying Coalition contacted him about sharing the records.
“Because I don't see myself as a gatekeeper of a public record that is actually the public’s property, I gave it to them,” Camacho said.
The group released the photos on its website Watch the Watchers on March 17, 2023, and Camacho tweeted a link to a folder containing all of the headshots a few days later.
“Almost immediately myself and everybody else realized that there are more images on there than the LAPD wanted to be on there,” Camacho said.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League, a union representing rank-and-file LAPD officers, filed a lawsuit against the City and Police Chief Michel Moore on March 28 demanding that the City recover the officers’ headshots and prevent them from being distributed further. Representatives of the police union have argued that it uses a broader definition of “undercover” than the City did when censoring the records, and it should include officers in “sensitive assignments” involving surveillance and those who had or might in the future work undercover.
A law firm representing 321 allegedly undercover LAPD officers also announced plans to file a class-action suit against the City seeking damages for negligence.
Camacho told the Tracker that the City, LAPD and the police union are attempting to redefine “undercover” in order to allow the police department to continue to operate without public scrutiny.
On March 30, the City sent Camacho a letter demanding that he return the flash drive of photos and delete all copies of the photos in his possession. The letter said that the City would provide an “updated production” of the records, but that in order to protect the identities of undercover officers it would only include the approximately 130 officers listed as command staff on the LAPD’s website — less than 1.5% of the images originally released.
Camacho did not comply with the demands, and on April 5 the City filed a lawsuit against him and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, requesting that a judge bar them from further releasing the officers’ photos and order them to unpublish the images and return or destroy all electronic and physical copies.
A spokesperson for the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office provided this statement when reached by email for comment:
“While there is strong public interest in governmental transparency, there is equally strong interest in the safety of LAPD officers, especially those in sensitive and undercover assignments. That is why we brought this suit — to have the photos of officers immediately removed from the website and to have the flash drive containing them returned.”
The spokesperson declined to comment further, citing the pending litigation.
The Los Angeles Police Department did not respond to a request for comment and a spokesperson for the police union was not available to comment.
The Media Guild of the West led a coalition of more than a dozen media organizations and press freedom advocates in opposition to the lawsuit, penning a letter to City Attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto and Mayor Karen Bass.
“The City’s sweeping demand for censorship defies logic as well as the First Amendment,” the letter said. “The City Attorney’s additional threat of law enforcement seizure sends a chilling warning to any journalist or individual who would lawfully use the Public Records Act to learn about their own government.”
The Times reported that on April 25 Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff denied the City’s motion for a temporary restraining order, which attorneys representing Camacho had argued amounted to an unconstitutional prior restraint.
“The City of Los Angeles’ lawsuit is a thinly veiled attempt to silence Mr. Camacho and other journalists who report on law enforcement,” attorney Dan Stormer said in a statement. “The real motives behind this lawsuit are to shield the Los Angeles Police Department from any measure of accountability and transparency.”