By Richard Winton
Los Angeles Times
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LOS ANGELES — Efforts by the city of Los Angeles to force a journalist and a police watchdog group to return more than 9,000 photos and names of LAPD officers were dealt a blow Tuesday when a judge rejected a request for a temporary restraining order that would have prevented them from doing anything with the data.
The judge said that the case was essentially about prior restraint and that the city would need to address it before any decisions are made in the case.
The case stems from the city’s release of the photos, names and other data last year in response to a California Public Records Act request and related litigation.
Attorneys for the city filed a lawsuit last month against Knock LA journalist Ben Camacho and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, saying the release of the officers’ names, photos and serial numbers on a data drive to Camacho was “inadvertent.”
They argued that the publication of images of officers who serve in undercover assignments posed a safety risk to the officers. After receiving the photos, Camacho provided them to the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, which published them online last month.
On Tuesday, the attorneys asked the judge to approve the restraining order to stop Camacho and the coalition from “transferring, concealing, removing or otherwise disposing of” the photos and other information. Lawyers for Camacho have filed to have the case dismissed as unconstitutional and retaliatory.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff declined to issue the restraining order and labeled the city’s legal brief confusing.
Beckloff said the city was trying to prevent the dissemination or publication of the information, but he told the city’s lawyers: “You really don’t address the prior restraint issue. You buried the lead.” He said the city needed to address the pivotal U.S. Supreme Court case on prior restraint — Nebraska Press Assn. vs. Stuart — and whether the injunction would be effective.
City lawyers insisted they aren’t seeking to prevent publication but want to prevent Camacho and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition from allowing other people to download the photos.
In one of several declarations filed by the city, LAPD Capt. Jonathan Tippet, who oversees the Robbery-Homicide Division, wrote that the publication had exposed the photos of undercover officers, including those of the Special Investigation Section, which conducts surveillance on suspects in violent serial crimes. Tippet said the images “permanently endangered the lives of the officers” and “jeopardize the investigation of significant criminal cases.”
Also Tuesday, Camacho said on Twitter that Microsoft had taken down a folder filled with head shots in a cloud drive for “violating terms of service.” Camacho previously tweeted a link to the folder, which contained the names and photos of 9,300 LAPD officers.
The legal team for Camacho filed a motion last week alleging that the litigation is a so-called SLAPP lawsuit, an improper lawsuit used by public officials to censor or intimidate someone from exercising their free speech.
“The City of Los Angeles’ lawsuit is a thinly veiled attempt to silence Mr. Camacho and other journalists who report on law enforcement,” Dan Stormer, one of the attorneys for Camacho, said at a news conference last week. “The real motives behind this lawsuit are to shield the Los Angeles Police Department from any measure of accountability and transparency.”
Other attorneys representing Camacho include Susan Seager, head of UC Irvine School of Law’s Press Freedom Project.
In their motion, the lawyers argue that the city’s attempt to undo the publication of the officers’ photos and information amounts to an infringement on Camacho’s freedom of speech. Such a ploy, they wrote, is barred by the state’s anti-SLAPP statute.
The motion says that the city willingly gave Camacho the records six months ago to settle the lawsuit he brought under the Public Records Act and that city officials wrote Camacho a letter saying the records did not include any officers working “undercover.”
The motion also states that the city failed to define an undercover assignment and that its claims of threats to officer safety are conjecture.
Knock LA and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition have denounced the lawsuit in separate statements. Knock LA called it a “clear intimidation tactic” by City Atty. Hydee Feldstein Soto. The Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, a frequent critic of the Police Department’s use of surveillance technology, called it “an attack on the public’s ability to request, analyze, and publish public records.”
Legal experts uniformly rejected the lawsuit as baseless and ripe for dismissal on 1st Amendment grounds and other well-established legal protections for journalists.
Hamid Khan, a coordinator with Stop LAPD Spying, said Camacho shared the officers’ images and information with his organization. The group then posted them online as part of a public, searchable database called “Watch the Watchers,” which includes each officer’s name, ethnicity, rank, date of hire, division or bureau, serial number and photo.
The union representing rank-and-file LAPD officers subsequently sued Chief Michel Moore over the release of the photos, hoping to force the department to stop disclosing such images and try to claw back those already released. More than 300 officers who claim to work in sensitive assignments have also given notice that they intend to sue the city, accusing it of negligence and endangering their lives by releasing the images.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.
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EARLIER: L.A. sues journalist, activist group to get back officer photos, information