L.A. will pay $300,000 to settle lawsuit over undercover police officer photos

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 01: Los Angeles Police Headquarters located at First and Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles July 1, 2020 as Los Angeles City Council voted to cut hiring at the LAPD, pushing the number of sworn officers well below 10,000 and abandoning a budget priority once seen as untouchable by city leaders. LAPD Headquarters on Wednesday, July 1, 2020 in Los Angeles, CA. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Police Department headquarters at First and Spring streets. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The city of Los Angeles has agreed to pay the legal bills for a local journalist and a group of activists whom it took to court last year for publishing photographs of LAPD officers, part of a tentative settlement that will end a lawsuit some saw as an assault on media freedom.

Under the agreement, which still needs to be approved by the City Council, Knock LA journalist Ben Camacho and the group Stop LAPD Spying Coalition will receive $300,000 for lawyer fees. They were sued for publishing thousands of officers' pictures that the city had itself provided in response to a public records request.

The agreement allows both sides to put the matter behind them without conceding any wrongdoing, although several other legal actions related to the officer photos remain pending, with the city still attempting to hold Camacho and Stop LAPD Spying responsible.

A court hearing on the matter is set for Tuesday afternoon.

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The city had asked the court to order Camacho and Stop LAPD Spying to return the images of officers in sensitive roles, to take them off the internet, and to forgo publishing them in the future. Those demands will now be dropped.

Constitutional and media rights experts widely denounced the suit, which was argued by the office of Los Angeles City Atty. Hydee Feldstein Soto, as meritless and a brazen attack on protected news-gathering activity at a time when press freedoms are being threatened across the country.

The Los Angeles Times was among the outlets to join a coalition of news organizations that spoke out against the lawsuit.

Attorneys for Camacho and Stop LAPD Spying argued to have the case dismissed, but last August a judge ruled that the city could proceed because publication of the photos threatened the safety of officers working undercover. Normally, such “prior restraint” on the speech of a political group is allowed only under “extraordinary” circumstances.

Stop LAPD Spying Coalition organizer Hamid Khan said he was happy with the case's resolution, but he still feels Feldstein Soto was "sending a message to silence people's dissent and silence people's desire to have more open government." Taxpayers were ultimately left footing the bill, he said.

Khan said the city attorney's insistence on continuing the suit appeared to be an attempt to appease the powerful Los Angeles Police Protective League.

“It just shows us who she is beholden to,” Camacho said of Feldstein Soto. The settlement “just means the public is on the hook for an abuse of power for the city attorney,” he said.

The city attorney's office didn't immediately return an email seeking comment on Monday morning.

The legal drama dates back to last spring, when Stop LAPD Spying turned the photos Camacho received from the city into a searchable online database called Watch the Watchers, which also includes such details as an officer's ethnicity, rank, date of hire, salary and assignment as of 2022. Users can look up an officer's photo using their name or badge number.

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Camacho obtained the images via a California Public Records Act request. When the LAPD initially refused to fully comply with the law Camacho took legal action and the city released the records.

Shortly after the Watch the Watchers site went live in March 2023, LAPD officials said they had inadvertently released photos of officers who worked undercover. Then-LAPD Chief Michel Moore ordered an internal investigation, while the LAPD inspector general's office launched a separate probe.

LAPD officers and their union alleged that the release of the photographs compromised the safety of officers working in sensitive assignments and threatened future criminal investigations. Some of those officers sued the city, alleging their families had also been placed in danger.

The city, in turn, sued Camacho and Stop LAPD Spying, trying to claw back the photos. Feldstein Soto also began lobbying California lawmakers to weaken the state’s public records law to allow government agencies to decline future public records requests that seek “images or data that may personally identify” employees.

The Protective League, which represents the LAPD's rank and file, also sued Moore, who after the photos' publication said he was unaware of the release, and later issued an apology. In April the Protective League agreed to drop its suit, according to online court records.

Officers who have signed on to the legal challenge against the city — numbering in the hundreds and listed as John Does — have argued the release put scores of LAPD employees in harm’s way, particularly those working in sensitive assignments who have to go to great lengths to disguise their identities.

Lawyers for the officers say blame for the disclosure lies with Moore and Elizabeth Rhodes, a civilian director who runs the department's office of constitutional policing, who reportedly allowed the release to go forward without Moore’s knowledge.

Since then, the case has sprawled in several directions.

Earlier this year, the city filed a counter-complaint denying the officers' claims, and named Camacho and Stop LAPD as cross-defendants. That case remains pending.

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Susan Seager, an attorney for Camacho, called Feldstein Soto's decision to press on with the other lawsuit "a cowardly attack on the press that she thought would buy her political points with the cops."

"Feldstein Soto has provided a powerful lesson for government agencies: You can't sue journalists after you willingly give them government records," said Seager, head of UC Irvine School of Law's Press Freedom Project. "It's too bad that taxpapers must pay for her stupid mistake, but if the city doesn't settle now, the city will have to pay even more money for Ben's attorney's fees after we win the court of appeal."

She pointed to case law that repeatedly ruled against similar efforts to claw back published information that journalists had obtained legally.

"It's important to remember that the LAPD did not submit a single piece of evidence that any officers were harmed by the disclosure of these photographs," she said. "This was never about officers being harmed by disclosure of their photos. It was always about officers being mad that they be held accountable for their actions."

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.