The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) recently had the names and photos of numerous undercover officers exposed online by an activist group after accidentally leaking the information.
The controversy stemmed from a public records request from the watchdog group Stop LAPD Spying Coalition, which opposes police intelligence gathering and advocates for police reform.
Following the group’s eight lawsuits against the LAPD to obtain the information, the group subsequently launched a searchable online database with more than 9,300 city police officers’ photos and names, along with their ethnicity, rank, date of hire, division/bureau and badge numbers.
Department leaders said the information was turned over to the organization through a public records request, but there was no oversight during the process, and many high-ranking LAPD members — including its chief — were caught unawares.
The department and the police union representing LAPD officers, the Los Angeles Police Protective League (LAPPL), have since vowed to determine the individual responsible for coordinating the leak, and to protect officers’ identities.
“We will look to what steps or added steps can be taken to safeguard the personal identifiers of our membership,” Police Chief Michel Moore said.
In an email, Moore said he opposed the release and that an investigation has been launched by the Inspector General’s Office.
“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 explained 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.”
The incident has caused concern within the department and the wider community. Many officers fear that the release of their personal information could compromise their safety, as they often work under aliases or under anonymity.
“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 continued.
The LAPD has long been criticized for its surveillance of residents.
Stop LAPD Spying Coalition’s coordinator Hamid Kahn said the police’s response to the leak has been “ironic.” “We’re not publishing their home addresses, we’re not publishing things that are outside their role as police officers,” he added.
The organization, which has been pushing for greater transparency around the LAPD, argues that police officers are not entitled to the same expectation of privacy as other residents because of their status as civil servants.
The release of the photos has also sparked a debate about the balance between police officers’ privacy and the public’s right to know. While police officers are public servants, they are also entitled to privacy and protection, especially as many officers work in dangerous situations and their anonymity is essential to ensure their safety.
The LAPD’s Office of Constitutional Policing has been criticized for its handling of the release of the photos. The LAPPL has also filed a formal complaint against the director of the office, Lizabeth Rhodes, and Moore.
Indeed, the LAPPL alleged that Rhodes failed to notify the chief of police and other police leaders regarding the disclosure until after the release.
Moreover, the LAPPL accused Rhodes and Moore of “egregious neglect of duty, false statements, and conduct unbecoming an officer or employee.”
The LAPD has since apologized for the incident, and city attorneys for the department say they are looking to exclude undercover officers from the database.
“This was a huge mistake,” an LAPD source said. “There is no doubt some operations were compromised if someone were to see an officer’s photo working it.”
Experts say the information could compromise the safety of undercover officers.
Seth Stoughton, a former Florida police officer and law professor, said the site risks undercover officers’ safety.
“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.
Moore also echoed these concerns.
“They are involved in criminal investigations involving drug cartels, violent street organizations, in which their identity pursuant to court oversight and the constitution is masked,” he said.