Journalist Ben Camacho On Facing Petty LAPD-Driven Lawsuit: “It’s The Biggest Gaslight Of My Life”
12:18 PM EDT on April 10, 2023
On Wednesday, the city of Los Angeles sued Ben Camacho, a reporter at Knock LA, for publishing information about LAPD officers that he legally obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The city’s lawsuit attempts to force Camacho to return the files—comprising photos and names of non-undercover police officers—that the city handed over to him last year. The city's lawsuit claims that the LAPD inadvertently released photos of police officers, and for that reason the photos should be returned and removed from the internet. The LAPD files were used by a community group called Stop LAPD Spying to create a database called Watch the Watchers. The database functions as a tool to help citizens hold police in their communities accountable and engage in counter-surveillance practices. When the database went live in March, the union that represents rank-and-file LAPD officers (Los Angeles Police Protective League) sued LAPD Chief Michel Moore over the release of the photos. Meanwhile, hundreds of other officers have announced their intent to sue the city over the release of the photos. In turn, the city announced it would sue Camacho, a move that’s widely understood to be more of a desperate face-saving maneuver than a serious lawsuit.
I spoke to Camacho on Friday about what it’s like to be the target of a lawsuit like this, his work as a journalist, Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass's comments on the case, and the city of Los Angeles being unable to secure its own flash drive. Our conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.
Hi Ben, it’s Laura Wagner. How are you doing?
Hey, I’m doing all right. Doing a lot better now.
OK, good good. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me. So, you were sued two days ago now by the city of Los Angeles. Did you know the lawsuit was coming?
Yes and no. I mean, yes, because of how big of a deal they were making it. And then no, because I understood that I did nothing wrong. Logically, one can deduce that they have no grounds to sue me specifically.
When you saw the lawsuit, what was your reaction to it? What went through your mind?
My attorney let me know [about the lawsuit]. I was just at home, literally chilling.
I was surprised, really. I had legally obtained the records and then I'm seeing my name in this lawsuit, and I'm just like, OK, let's get this dismissed, this is B.S. I've been meeting with my attorneys, and they've pretty much broken down why the city's case against me is a really bad case. And we've got experts chiming in. I don't know if you saw the Los Angeles Times article that cited three legal experts. One called the lawsuit a Hail Mary, one said it was on very weak legal grounds, and then one brought up the Pentagon Papers and said, basically, if they couldn’t do it, then the city of Los Angeles is not going to do this. [Ed note: In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government couldn't prevent newspapers from publishing information about the Vietnam War that had been leaked by a military contractor.] So hearing from so many different people, especially my attorneys, I feel very supported. And also seeing the statements that have been getting put out today and yesterday, especially from the folks at Knock. I'd love to specifically thank Managing Editor Cerise Castle, and Joey Scott and Jon Peltz, for their relentless support and making me feel that I'm not alone here and they're in my corner for sure.
You’re no stranger to dealing with police departments and their press management operations that sometimes include trumped-up legal efforts to impede reporting. The story you wrote about the Santa Ana Police Department and its gang of rogue cops a year ago was really great, and required suing the police department for records. So knowing all of that, has anything surprised you about how the LAPD and the city of L.A. have responded to this specific case of reporting?
It surprised me how reactionary this whole thing has been on their end. I think one of the main things is how they jumped straight to a lawsuit against me individually. What I mean by that is typically when whatever agency or government tries to work against a reporter, they sue the organization that they work with. And to name me specifically, I see that only as a scare tactic and an intimidation tactic. To an extent it is a little frightening, because it's like, OK, what is this? I don’t have a legal background, I'm asking, like, what does this mean? [...] And then the mayor didn't even comment on whether she supports the lawsuit. It’s just a really bad look. A lot of people have told me that they can't believe Karen Bass didn’t comment because she ran as a reformer. So it's a huge hypocrisy on her end.
Yeah, I saw she said in a press conference yesterday that the release of the images was an “egregious mistake,” and that she worried it would lead to more cops quitting, and that those responsible need to be “held fully accountable.” You’ve already spoken to this a bit, but what do you make of that? I think there’s this mentality that police officers certainly have that they're the victims and they’re the ones being persecuted and they need to be protected, and then to have the supposedly progressive mayor kind of parroting that mentality, how did that strike you?
I feel like there's a couple of things there. For her to call it a mistake, for example–I think it would be better phrased to say that the LAPD is trying to walk back the release of the photos by changing their definition of what “undercover” is. What I'm understanding is that they're saying that "undercover" can also mean officers who work in sensitive assignments. That's extremely broad, I don't know what “sensitive assignment” means. And it seems to give them a huge amount of discretion.
And then Bass kind of parroting what the LAPPL is saying, what that says to me is that she's their spokesperson. Yes, she's trying to save face because the city is also getting pressure from the LAPPL, but to kind of turn around and then scapegoat me? I mean, that's just wrong.
It really seemed like it was an opportunity for her to make a statement about free press and how we shouldn’t countenance these types of petty lawsuits that waste everyone's time. Is there anyone else in the city who is sticking up for you and the press?
Not that I know of. That's not to say that there isn't, I'm just seeing so many things on my end, it’s hard to keep track sometimes. But yeah, off the top my head, I don't know if anyone in the city is saying like, Yo, like, we need to drop this case.
Just to back up a little bit, when did you file this FOIA request with the LAPD?
Let me double check that. [...] It was Oct. 11, 2021. LAPD responded in January that they weren’t going to give me the photos. They tried to say that because the photos exist on film, it would be unduly burdensome for them to digitize them. I had a really hard time believing that this billionaire police department doesn't have photos of its own employees in digital format. And so that's what led up to the lawsuit there, which we filed May 27, 2022.
Can you explain what your rationale was for requesting these photos of LAPD officers?
Yeah, totally. It goes back to my work in Santa Ana. There was an incident that I was looking into in which an off-duty officer was involved in a physical altercation with members of the public. And I was trying to find out this officer's name, because I had my suspicion that he was linked to something else that I was looking into. I tried to get his name, and the city wouldn't release his name. But I had video of it altercation. So I said, OK, give me your photos, and I'll just find his name myself. [...] So I used pretty much the same language for the LAPD request. At the time, I was watching a lot of cop-watch videos, you know where people, as is their right under the First Amendment, go out and film the cops. I was noticing that very often there'll be an incident where, say, an officer shines a flashlight into the camera and that blinds the camera, or they refuse to identify themselves when asked for their name or badge number, or they'll purposely look away from the camera and try to be all secretive about what they're doing in plain view. And that was problematic for me, because it helps to have an understanding of who is involved in whatever incident I'm looking into. So that led up to the LAPD request. I pretty much copied and pasted the language I used for Santa Ana.
And so then you actually received the files in September?
Yeah, that's correct, on Sept. 16. We had reached a settlement with the city and they had told us that they were not including images of undercover officers. That was completely okay. We were like, That's fine, we're not asking for undercovers. Then the city or LAPD couldn't figure out how to send 300 megabytes worth of JPEGs apparently, and I had to go and spend $6 to get a flash drive that we sent that to them. And then on Sept. 16, they said it was ready. I went to City Hall and somebody from the city attorney's office walked out, met me at my car and just handed me the envelope with the flash drive, a paper roster of the of the LAPD, and the letter from the city attorney that says undercover officers are not included. And that was it.
Months of legal wrangling and it ends with parking lot envelope handoff.
Yeah, literally. It was kind of like a movie. You know, it's like the yellow manila envelope, data inside of it. It was funny, mainly because I had to buy them a flash drive.
What did you do from there?
So I sat on the photos. I uploaded them to a OneDrive link. I don't know if you follow their work, but Stop LAPD Spying does a lot of public records requests and they were aware that I had this release. The attorney who represented me let me know this is all public record, clearly this in intended for the public. Me, being no gatekeeper of information, when Stop LAPD Spying asked me for the photos, I handed them over. Then fast forward to last month and the Watch the Watchers website drops, with the photos in a searchable format. I think that same day, the LAPPL filed an official complaint against the chief and I think one other person at the department that oversaw the request. And then they sued the Chief and, yeah, I think you know, the rest.
Someone pointed this out on Twitter, but it really is kind of a hilarious example of the Streisand effect. If the LAPD didn’t want people to be looking at Watch the Watchers database, suing everyone they possibly can to get it taken down seems like a guaranteed way to drive attention to it. I mean, it’s already on the internet anyhow. Do you have any thoughts about how this approach may have backfired on them?
There's a couple of things that come to mind. Since this all kind of unraveled, I've had several people in my Twitter replies saying, like, Oh, the photos are saved here or they’re archived here. Let's say I folded and I gave the records back, which for the record, I'm not going to do, but let's say I no longer have them and then let's say Watch the Watchers gets taken down, which I really highly doubt it will. I asked around and somebody told me that the files have been torrented. So what I understand is once something is torrented online, it's virtually impossible for it to ever be scrubbed. The files just get distributed across hundreds of thousands—I don’t know, millions of computers? To go back to your question about this backfiring, if they had just tried to go about this quietly, the photos might not have been archived like this, in a way that made them that much more permanent. So yeah, it's on them really.
We've talked about it this a little bit but you've gotten so much support from your colleagues at Knock LA and elsewhere in media and activist circles. Why do you think people are really rallying around this?
Yeah, it's kind of funny. Yesterday I received an Instagram DM that someone had reposted the statement from Knock LA and said, like, We stand with Ben Camacho. I'm like, Oh, wow, people are standing with me! I don't know, you always hear that when there's like political movements, we stand with so-and-so, and it’s like this is where we are. I just thought it was kind of funny. But, obviously I am super, super, super grateful for all the support. I was dealing with a lot of anxiety that first evening that I learned that I was getting sued and I woke up the next day after talking to a lot of people and just really feeling very, like hopeful and supported.
One thing that I've noticed over the years in my reporting is that people, across the political spectrum, including right-wing and conservative folks, there’s this weird middle ground which is that most people do believe in accountability. And I think that's what it boils down to. So many people have been telling me what they’ve been able to figure out thanks to the Watch the Watchers database and journalists who have been able to use it for their work. It boils down to public records being for the public. People are very much aware of having the right to know and the power that comes with that.
Well said. And I think there's also an aspect to this that is funny. Like, the LAPD and the city are kind of shooting themselves in the dick with this?
Yeah, it's honestly the biggest gaslight of my life to be sued by the city. It's insane that somebody somewhere was like, OK, let's sue Ben Camacho. What? Your own office gave me these photos.
So what happens now? What are you expecting next?
Hopefully we get this case dismissed. It'd be awesome to get Karen Bass to actually answer the question of whether or not she's supportive of the lawsuit, and get that on record. And hopefully I can move on from this, because frankly I never wanted any of this. I just wanted some photos.