In an unfolding drama that has reached the top of the charts, the Los Angeles Police Department accidentally released the names and photos of numerous undercover officers to a watchdog group who posted them on its website.
The controversy began late last week when the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition launched a searchable online database called watch the watchmen — From more than 9,300 photos of the city’s police officers, complete with their names, ethnicity, rank, date of hire, division/office, 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 due to their status as public officials. They said in an interview about the site that what they posted was obtained through a public records request by a civilian journalist and released by the LAPD.
Department leaders said over the weekend that the release of photos of officers working undercover went inadvertent and that they have launched an internal investigation to determine how the error occurred.
After the site went live on Friday, the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents rank-and-file officers, issued a relatively tame statement expressing frustration that the department failed to tell it about the disclosure before it was released. was made public. But those concerns about officer privacy were outweighed by a firestorm that swept through the department’s upper ranks over the weekend.
“If this is the case, we are deviating from what the department and the city attorney’s office gave us in the first place,” said Hamid Khan, coordinator of Stop LAPD Spying, an activist organization that opposes intelligence. police. meeting and is pushing for widespread reform.
Khan called it deeply ironic that the department would oppose such a disclosure, considering its history of surveillance and collection of information on residents.
“We are not posting their home addresses, we are not posting things that are outside of their role as police officers,” he said.
The group has long pushed for sweeping transparency around the LAPD, arguing that outside oversight bodies have routinely failed over the years to expose and rein in police misconduct. Khan said that if the police union disagrees with the release, it should file its complaints 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 on Saturday, Police Chief Michel Moore said he learned of the disclosure “after it happened and, in fact, had expressed my opposition to such disclosure in a media interview earlier that day.” ”.
“I apologize to each member of this affected department and their families for not giving them advance notice of this release. While I recognize that the apology may be of little consequence to you, each of you should be able to depend on me and this department to demonstrate appropriate sensitivity in these types of situations,” Moore said in the email.
The email also said it called for an internal investigation into the release of the photos, which were released to an unidentified 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 the events, those involved, the underlying analysis, and the rationale for the decision to release the information and the protocols used,” Moore said in the email. “In addition, it appears that once the decision to release the information was made, appropriate safeguards were not put in place to ensure those assigned to confidential investigations were not included, and that steps were taken to alert our members of the required disclosure.” .
He said those involved “in the decisions and actions” would be held accountable, adding that this was not intended to be a “scapegoat” 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 Enforcement.
“Did we demand to know who knew what and when they knew it?” the union said in a statement. “If the boss didn’t know, as he has claimed, who knew and when will they be shown the door? We will also push to ensure that officers who are working on sensitive assignments are given adequate security to keep them and their families safe.”
Multiple LAPD sources not authorized to discuss the photo scandal said Rhodes, the administrator overseeing the release of the images, should have actively communicated with the divisions to ensure that any officers working undercover were excluded from the release of the photo. photo.
Some of those pictured are also working with other agencies as part of federal task forces, the sources said, and the disclosure may have damaged that job and employment relationship as well. The sources said the existence of the photo files could also make it difficult for anyone whose photo may now be in the publicly available database to be considered for covert operations.
Another LAPD source who works with undercover units described “shock and panic that rocked their ranks and families” after the department decided to release footage of officers and detectives working on particularly sensitive undercover details involving cartels, gangs, narcotics and even counterterrorism. .
LAPD sources said the release of the photos came after Santa Ana was ordered to release the photos of its officers following a legal battle.
Rhodes was in charge of publishing the photos along with the city attorney’s office. But the actual names and images were generated by administrative staff and only a handful of staff working undercover were excluded, according to the sources.
“It was a big mistake,” an LAPD source said. “There is no doubt that some operations were compromised if someone saw a photo of an officer working.”
Seth Stoughton, a former Florida police officer and law professor at the University of South Carolina who is studying police, said posting photos of undercover officers “can absolutely compromise your identity.”
Stoughton said she obviously favors transparency, but this is a fundamental issue of officer safety when a department asks some men and women on the force to take much more serious risks than a normal police officer.
“All it takes is for someone to train a facial recognition program on these photos. While the average criminal doesn’t have those assets, the type of people that investigators target in undercover operations may well have such products or technology experts,” Stoughton said. She said the department will have to assess whether any of its covert assets are compromised.
At the same time, he said, “it may not be as scary as it sounds because undercover officers tend to take another look from their official police photos.” He added that many officers’ photos are also likely already on social media.
The photos appear on a website that Khan, of Stop LAPD Spying, said will be a useful “accountability” tool for activists, academics and amateur “cop watchers” who monitor police-civilian encounters for potential suspects. abuse and excessive force. The database will be updated regularly and likely to grow over time, populated with data on officers’ disciplinary records and salaries as the group obtains it through public records requests. It could be expanded to include the department’s more than 3,000 civilian employees, he said.
“What we’re doing is just turning the camera on them and saying, ‘This is who you are, this is what you do, this is what you’ve done,’” said Khan, a regular at City Hall and Police. commission meetings.
The site was born partly out of necessity, Khan said, noting that some officers at protests have been known to hide their identity, making it difficult to file complaints when misconduct occurs.
He said activists had already used the photo database to identify an officer who appeared to be taunting residents and supporters of the controversial cleanup of a slum homeless encampment earlier 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. Lawyers for the department argue that such details constitute an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” and could put officers at risk.