Tue. Apr 16th, 2024

Los Angeles police accidentally release photos of undercover officers to watchdog website

Names, photos of Los Angeles undercover police posted online

 

Members of the 5-10 Los Angeles Police Department recruit class line up for graduation at the LAPD training academy in Elysian Park in Los Angeles in 2010. The Los Angeles Police Department accidentally released the names and photos of numerous undercover officers to a watchdog group that posted them on its website on Friday.

The Los Angeles police chief and the department’s constitutional policing director are under investigation after the names and photographs of undercover officers were released to a technology watchdog group that posted them online, the Los Angeles Times reported.

LAPD Chief Michel Moore offered his “deep apologies” to the undercover officers, who were not given advance notice of the disclosure, during a police commission meeting Tuesday.

The watchdog group Stop LAPD Spying Coalition posted more than 9,300 officers’ information and photographs last Friday in a searchable online database, the Times reported, following a public records request by a reporter for progressive news outlet Knock LA.

The database includes information on each officer including name, ethnicity, rank, date of hire, badge number and division or bureau. It was not immediately clear how many of the officers listed were undercover.

Stop LAPD Spying Coalition opposes police intelligence-gathering and says the database should be used for “countersurveillance.”

“You can use it to identify officers who are causing harm in your community” the group wrote. “Police have vast information about all of us at their fingertips, yet they move in secrecy.”The department’s release of the undercover officers’ names and photographs was inadvertent, the Times reported. While the city attorney’s office determined the agency was legally required to turn over the records under California law, exemptions are often made for safety or investigative reasons.

In a still-unfolding drama that has reached its top ranks, the Los Angeles Police Department accidentally released the names and photos of numerous undercover officers to a watchdog group that posted them on its website.

 

Watch the Watchers to Visit the Database

The controversy began late last week when the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition launched a searchable online database — called Watch the Watchers — of more than 9,300 city police officers’ photos, complete with their names, ethnicity, rank, date of hire, division/bureau and badge numbers. The group called the site the first of its kind in the country.

Stop LAPD Spying officials said they believe police officers are not entitled to the same expectation of privacy as other residents because of their status as civil servants. They said in an interview about the site that what they published was obtained through a public records request by a civilian journalist and turned over by the LAPD.

Department leaders said over the weekend that the release of pictures of officers working in an undercover capacity was inadvertent, and they have launched an internal investigation to determine how the mistake occurred.

After the site went live Friday, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents rank-and-file officers, put out a relatively tame statement expressing frustration that the department did not tell it about the disclosure before it went public. But those concerns about officer privacy were surpassed by a firestorm that spread through the department’s upper ranks over the weekend.

“If this is the case, first of all, we are just going off of what was given to us by the department and the city attorney’s office,” said Hamid Khan, a coordinator with Stop LAPD Spying, an activist organization that opposes police intelligence gathering and is pushing for widespread reform.

Hamid Khan of Stop LAPD Spying Coalition holds a Feb. 1 news conference with other organizations including Black Lives Matter to oppose Mayor Karen Bass’ decision to reappoint Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Hamid Khan of Stop LAPD Spying Coalition holds a Feb. 1 news conference with other organizations including Black Lives Matter to oppose Mayor Karen Bass’ decision to reappoint Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore.(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Khan called it deeply ironic that the department would be opposed to such a disclosure, considering its history of surveilling and gathering information about residents.

“We’re not publishing their home addresses, we’re not publishing things that are outside their role as police officers,” he said.

The group has long pushed for radical transparency around the LAPD, arguing that outside oversight bodies have routinely failed over the years to expose and keep in check police misconduct. Khan said that if the police union disagrees with the disclosure, it should take up its grievances with the LAPD — which ultimately released the photos, based on a court ruling in another jurisdiction.

Police officials said that even if the information was obtained legally, it could still compromise the safety of officers who normally operate in the shadows.

In a department-wide email Saturday, Police Chief Michel Moore said he learned of the disclosure “after it had occurred and had in fact expressed my opposition to such a release in a media interview earlier that day.”

“I apologize to each member of this department impacted, and your families, for not having provided you with advance notice of this release. While I recognize that apology may be of little significance to you, each of you should be able to depend on me and this department to demonstrate the appropriate sensitivity in these types of situations,” Moore said in the email.

Th email also said he called for an internal investigation into the release of the photos, which were given to an unnamed party in September under a public records request. At some point, Moore’s email said, the photos were obtained by a third party, a possible reference to Stop LAPD Spying.

“The investigation will include the timeline of events, those involved, the underlying analysis and rationale in reaching the decision to release the information, and protocols employed,” Moore said in the email. “Additionally, it appears that once the decision was made to release the information, that appropriate safeguards were not put in place to ensure those assigned to sensitive investigations were not included, and that steps were taken to alert our membership of the required release.”

He said that those involved “in the decisions and actions” would be held accountable, while adding that this wasn’t intended to be a “scape goat” investigation.

The police union filed a formal complaint related to the disclosure Monday against Moore and Lizabeth Rhodes, director of the LAPD’s Office of Constitutional Policing.

“We demand to know who knew what and when did they know it?” the union said in a statement. “If the chief did not know, as he has claimed, then who did and when will they get shown the door? We will also be pressing to ensure those officers that are working in sensitive assignments are accorded the appropriate security to keep them and their families safe.”

Multiple LAPD sources not authorized to discuss the photo scandal said Rhodes, the administrator overseeing the handing over of the images, should have actively reached out to divisions to ensure any officer working in an undercover capacity was excluded from the photo disclosure.

Some of those in the photos are also working with other agencies as part of federal task forces, the sources said, and the disclosure may have also hurt that work and working relationship. The sources said the existence of the photo files could also make it hard to consider bringing into undercover operations anyone whose photo may now be on the publicly available database.

Another LAPD source who works with undercover units described “shock and panic that shuddered through their ranks and families” after the department chose to release images of officers and detectives who work particularly sensitive undercover details, involving cartels, gangs, narcotics and even counter-terrorism.

LAPD sources said the photos’ release came after Santa Ana was ordered to reveal its officers’ photos following a legal battle.

Rhodes was in charge of the photos’ release in concert with the city attorney’s office. But the actual names and images were generated by administrative staff and only a handful of personnel who work in an undercover capacity were excluded, according to the sources.

“This was a huge mistake,” one LAPD source said. “There is no doubt some operations were compromised if someone were to see an officer’s photo working it.”

Seth Stoughton, a former Florida police officer and law professor at the University of South Carolina who studies policing, said releasing photos of officers in undercover positions “can absolutely compromise their identity.”

Stoughton said he obviously favors transparency, but this is a fundamental issue of officer safety when a department is asking some men and women on the force to take much more serious risks than a normal police officer.

“All it takes is someone to train a facial recognition program on these photos. While the average criminal doesn’t have those assets, the kind of people investigators target in deep-cover operations may well have such products or technology experts,” Stoughton said. He said the department will have to assess which if any of its undercover assets are compromised.

At the same time, he said, “it may not be as God awful as it seems because officers working undercover tend to take on another appearance from their official police photos.” He added that it is also likely that many officers’ photos are already on social media.

For the record:

10:36 a.m. March 21, 2023An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the watchdog group Stop LAPD Spying Coalition may release photos of the department’s more than 3,000 civilian employees. The group says it has no intention of doing so.

The photos are featured on a website Khan, of Stop LAPD Spying, said will prove a useful “accountability” tool for activists, academics and amateur “cop watchers” who monitor police-civilian encounters for potential excessive force and abuses. The database will be updated periodically and will probably grow over time, populated with data on officers’ disciplinary histories and salaries as the group obtains them through public records requests.

“What we are doing is, we are just flipping the camera on them and saying, ‘This is who you are, this is what you do, this is what you have done,’” said Khan, a regular at City Hall and Police Commission meetings.

The site was born in part out of necessity, Khan said, noting that some officers at protests are known to shield their identity, making it hard to file complaints when misconduct occurs.

He said activists had already used the photo database to identify an officer who appeared to be mocking residents and advocates at the controversial cleanup of a homeless encampment in skid row this year.

Stop LAPD Spying remains locked in a protracted legal battle with the department over the LAPD’s refusal to release data on each officer’s height and weight. Attorneys for the department contend that such details constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” and could put the officers at risk. source source


WHAT IS THIS?

This website is maintained by the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, a community group based in the Skid Row neighborhood of downtown Los Angeles.

Around a decade ago, Stop LAPD Spying developed a copwatch practice that we call Watch the Watchers. Copwatch refers to the practice of community members teaming up to observe and document police abuses, especially arrests and other violence. Watch the Watchers built on this practice with a focus on surveillance technologies and patterns. You can watch videos explaining our Watch the Watchers work at May Day actions in MacArthur park in 2015, where we exposed LAPD undercover surveillance, and in 2017, where LAPD officers tried to lie about spy technologies deployed to monitor the crowd.

This website is intended as a tool to empower community members engaged in copwatch and other countersurveillance practices. You can use it to identify officers who are causing harm in your community. The website’s ease of use also makes it a political statement, flipping the direction of surveillance against the state’s agents. Police have vast information about all of us at their fingertips, yet they move in secrecy.

WHERE IS THE DATA FROM?

All data on this website is drawn from public records released by city agencies. You can read more about Stop LAPD Spying’s work with public records in a zine we published, Know Your Fights: Using Public Records Laws in Abolitionist Organizing.

The project first began after we obtained a full roster of all LAPD personnel along with headshot photographs of every officer that LAPD had released in response to a public records request. LAPD regularly uses photos like this on its website and in propaganda materials, but they denied the public records request claiming that none of these photographs exist in a digitized format, so an LAPD unit “whose primary responsibility is to provide evidentiary photography” would need “to take affirmative steps to manually locate the negatives and produce photos.” LAPD claimed that this would be “unduly burdensome.”

That was a lie, and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition provided legal support to address the issue. We helped file a lawsuit against the City of Los Angeles exposing that these photos were readily available and a matter of public record. In response to the lawsuit, LAPD turned over more than 9,000 headshot photographs. We then filed additional Public Records Act requests to both LAPD and the City Controller to obtain further details on every officer.

HOW RELIABLE IS THE DATA?

Again, all the data used to build this website is drawn from government records, so we can only vouch for it up to that extent. The data is only accurate as of the date we received it from a city agency, indicated below:

Photographs September 2022
Bureau/Division January 2023
Rank January 2023

Note that police move frequently between divisions/bureau, and some might have multiple division/bureau assignments. We plan to periodically keep refreshing that data from new public records requests as well as to add other data. In addition, for now this website only lists LAPD’s sworn personnel, not its “civilian” staff of over 3,500 additional employees.

If there’s anything you think we should add to this website or if you want to contribute any data or work to the effort, we would love to hear. Stop by one of our meetings or email stoplapdspying@gmail.com.


KNOW YOUR FIGHTS! USING PUBLIC RECORDS LAWS IN ABOLITIONIST ORGANIZING

Read our latest zine! Abolitionists reject police “transparency” reforms, which we know can legitimize and expand the police state. Yet abolitionist organizers often exploit public records laws for research and organizing. People often ask: Why do you oppose “transparency” reforms while using public records laws, which are also meant to facilitate government transparency? This zine explores that question, sharing howpublic records laws can be weaponized to build power and foster collective study.

DOWNLOAD DIGITAL ZINE

DOWNLOAD PRINTABLE ZINE (print this double-sided flipping on short edges to assemble it as a booklet)

source


LAPD chief: Inspector general will probe release of photos of undercover officers to website

The “Watch the Watchers” website posted photos of over 9,300 LAPD personnel, including undercover officers

LOS ANGELES — The Office of the Inspector General will investigate LAPD Chief Michel Moore and the department’s constitutional policing director over the disclosure of photos of thousands of officers, including those who work undercover.

At Tuesday’s regular meeting of the Police Commission, Moore said he had issued “deep apologies” for the way many officers first learned of the photos, which were released in response to a California Public Records Act request. Moore said officers should have been made aware in advance that the photos would be published on an advocacy group’s public website.

But he told the commission he was more concerned that images of officers on sensitive assignments were released, because of potential threats to their safety.

“They are involved in criminal investigations involving drug cartels, violent street organizations, in which their identity to court oversight and constitution is masked,” he said. Moore conceded that the disclosure “poses a risk to them,” noting the widespread availability of facial-recognition technology.

The controversy began Friday with the launch of a searchable online database, Watch the Watchers. The site published photos of more than 9,300 Los Angeles Police Department officers, complete with name, ethnicity, rank, date of hire, division/bureau and badge number. The site was created by the technology watchdog group Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, which called the effort the first of its kind in the United States.

Moore said that upon learning of the site, he immediately launched an internal investigation. But after the Los Angeles Police Protective League filed a complaint against him and Liz Rhodes, the LAPD’s constitutional policing director, Moore asked the inspector general to take over the probe to avoid a conflict of interest, he said.

The episode has prompted questions about transparency and the department’s ability to balance the public’s right to officer information against potential safety concerns.

The chief said he has taken steps to address the fears of those whose photos were released, including working with the undercover officers “to understand what steps can be taken to protect their identity.”

Moore said he aims to discover who reviewed and authorized the photos’ release in order to prevent it from happening again. However, he said, the city attorney has determined that the department was legally required to turn over the images under the Public Records Act.

“We will look to what steps or added steps can be taken to safeguard the personal identifiers of our membership,” he said.

Department officials have not said whether the release has compromised any current investigations.

Commissioner Maria Lou Calanche said she welcomed the inspector general’s investigation and wants the results made public.

“More concerning,” she said, “is it got to this point without the oversight that was needed.”

The chief’s comments during Tuesday’s meeting drew scoffs from activists and residents in attendance.

Several speakers pointed out that the photos were obtained through a public records request and that their release was approved by department leadership. Hamid Khan, an organizer with the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, accused Moore and commission members of trying to drum up a scandal to distract from the department’s own mistake.

“Nobody’s talking to each other, nobody knows what the f— is going on in their own department,” he said.

In a lengthy Twitter thread, independent journalist Ben Camacho confirmed that he filed the records request seeking photos of officers. He wrote that LAPD officials did not at first cite officer safety as an argument against the release and posted a screenshot of an email exchange he had with Deputy City Attorney Hasmik Badalian Collins.

“The only officers they are excluding from disclosure are undercover officers, which is expected,” an email from Collins read. “And for those who are missing pictures, it appears like there are less than 100 of them. Again better than expected.”

In addition to filing a complaint, the police union called for Rhodes’ firing, citing her handling of the matter.

Rhodes did not respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday.

Stop LAPD Spying officials have said they believe that police officers, due to the nature of their work, should be subject to more scrutiny than other citizens. source