Fake nude photo of captain circulated in LAPD. Here's why chief says he kept it quiet

Capt. Lillian Carranza during a press conference at LAPD headquarters in Los Angeles, Calif., on Oct. 2, 2018.
Capt. Lillian Carranza speaks during an October 2018 news conference at Los Angeles Police Department headquarters. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
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A fake nude photograph purportedly of a female LAPD captain shared by officers may have "smeared" her, but the chief of police said he didn't send a departmentwide message about it because he feared "it had the potential of becoming viral."

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore testified Thursday in Capt. Lillian Carranza's lawsuit against the department that the image was intended to "ridicule, embarrass or harass or smear" the veteran female leader.

But after Carranza filed an official complaint in late 2018 and asked Moore to notify the 13,000 members of the force that the photo was a fake, he declined, saying to do so could create "a viral interest, human or otherwise" and a "potential for further embarrassment," with others potentially seeking out the image.

Carranza, a 33-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, who at the time commanded the Commercial Crimes Division and now leads the Gang and Narcotics Division, alleges that LAPD command staff knew the image was being circulated, along with disparaging comments about her, but didn't alert her. Instead, she learned about the photo from a colleague.

The trial that began this week shines a light on one of several allegations made by women in the department that describe a crude, sexist culture among the ranks that is too often tolerated.

In her suit, Carranza is seeking damages for emotional distress, claiming sexual harassment and a hostile work environment. She is slated to testify Tuesday.

Carranza was so deeply humiliated by the topless photo that was doctored to look like her that she suffered a major depressive disorder, and after a co-worker told her about it, her blood pressure skyrocketed so high, she had to be hospitalized on Christmas Eve, her attorney, Greg Smith, told jurors.

An LAPD adjudication of her complaint found the image had been distributed in at least "four different locations at different times" and "was portrayed to various officers as an image of Carranza." An investigation noted it was not possible to identify who initiated the photo-sharing.

But Mark Waterman, the lead attorney for the city, said that no one shared the photo directly with Carranza and that only a small number of officers saw the image rumored to be her. She also was not subjected to any harassing conduct in her work environment, Waterman said.

Moore acknowledged Thursday during his testimony that he sent a departmentwide message in connection with a "racist" 2021 Valentine-style meme mocking the 2020 killing of George Floyd that was shared by an LAPD officer. But he said that was different from Carranza's case.

"They are not on the same scale," Moore said, adding he feared the Valentine's post could further public mistrust of the police. "It needed a response to an entire world."

But Carranza's attorney said even after she sued the department over the incident, the chief did not publicly tell his officers it was fake or direct them not to share the image. Moore said in Carranza's case, the department's effort was focused on finding the "person responsible for sending that out."

Former Deputy Chief Debra McCarthy, who oversaw the LAPD investigation as head of the Professional Standards Bureau, testified that she supported Moore's decision not to send a departmentwide notification about the fake photo.

McCarthy, who retired in 2020, said that Carranza contacted them after the investigation was underway and asked to get the message out to the entire department that it was not her. McCarthy said she discussed that request with Moore, but she, too, feared any statement by the chief "might give it legs" and taint the investigation.

She said it was unclear how many officers had seen the image. Many denied it, and even those who admitted to having seen the photo could not recall how they had gotten it.

Former Sgt. Stacey Gray, who conducted the LAPD investigation, testified that when she asked Carranza how she eventually saw the image, her lawyer, who was on the phone with them, said: "She got it from me."

Gray said there was an incident in 2018 at the then-Staples Center in which an officer showed the photo to colleagues. She said she guessed 10 to 13 officers saw the image, but she couldn't say with certainty the exact number.

Carranza has said in court documents she believes parts of her face were Photoshopped onto the nude image.

"I noted that the facial features of the woman in the picture bore a striking resemblance to me, although the photograph was not actually of me," she said in a declaration. "In fact, I concluded that my own eye appears to have been Photoshopped into the picture."

Carranza said in the declaration she felt "hurt, abandoned and devalued by my superiors ... who took no steps to prevent known harm to me from occurring and who stood by and watched, encouraged or simply looked the other way as I was ridiculed, humiliated and degraded by fellow LAPD employees, despite my persistent pleas for help."

It is the latest in a series of derogatory incidents during her career, Carranza said. In November 2013, a then-detective teaching a training class was captured on audio saying she was "a very cute little Hispanic lady," and she had "been swapped around a bunch of times." The department, she said, knew of the recording but never told her about it until the officer who made the recording notified her.

The photo incident with Carranza came months after the City Council approved a $1.8-million payout to a female officer who accused an internal affairs lieutenant of sexual harassment and ordering surveillance of her when she rejected his advances.

In 2020, the city paid $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit from a police detective who said she that was assaulted, abused and blackmailed by a fellow officer and that department officials ignored her complaints. That officer pleaded no contest to one count of misdemeanor injury of a spouse or girlfriend and was sentenced to three years’ probation.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.