Los Angeles will pay $300,000 to settle a lawsuit against journalist over undercover police photos

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Los Angeles has agreed to pay $300,000 to cover the legal fees of a local journalist and a technology watchdog group that had been sued by the city last year for publishing photos of names and photographs of hundreds of undercover officers obtained through a public records request, the journalist's attorney said Monday.

The photos' release prompted huge backlash from Los Angeles police officers and their union, alleging that it compromised safety for those working undercover and in other sensitive assignments, such as investigations involving gangs, drugs and sex traffickers. The city attorney's subsequent lawsuit against Ben Camacho, a journalist for progressive news outlet Knock LA at the time, and the watchdog group Stop LAPD Spying Coalition drew condemnation from media rights experts and a coalition of newsrooms, including The Associated Press, as an attack on free speech and press freedoms.

Camacho had submitted a public records request for the LAPD's roster — roughly 9,300 officers — as well as their photographs and information, such as their name, ethnicity, rank, date of hire, badge number and division or bureau. City officials had not sought an exemption for the undercover officers and inadvertently released their photos and personal data to Camacho. The watchdog group used the records to make an online searchable database called Watch the Watchers.

The city attorney's office filed its lawsuit in April 2023 in an attempt to claw back the photographs, which had already been publicly posted. The settlement came after the city approached Camacho and Stop LAPD Spying last month to go into mediation over the case, said Camacho's lawyer Susan Seager.

“It shows that the city is acknowledging that ... when the city gives a reporter some documents, they can’t turn around and sue the reporter and demand they give them back after the fact,” Seager said.

Seager said if the city had won the lawsuit, “any government agency would be suing reporters right and left to get back documents they claimed they didn't mean to give them.”

The city attorney's office did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment on Monday. The LAPD declined to comment.

“This case was never just about photographs,” the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition said in a statement. “It was about the public’s relationship to state violence.”

The city will also have to drop demands for 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, according to the Los Angeles Times. The settlement now goes to the City Council and mayor for approval, according to court documents.

“This settlement is a win for the public, the first amendment and ensures we will continue to have radical transparency within the LAPD,” Camacho said Monday in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Camacho still faces a second lawsuit filed by the city attorney's office to force him and the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition to pay damages to LAPD officers who sued the city after the photo release.