Free Press

Police Raid on San Francisco Journalist Descends Into Blame Game

The chief and the union square off over who arranged what was likely an illegal search.


The troubling police raid on a San Francisco journalist's home in a misguided—and possibly illegal—attempt to track down the identity of a leaker has descended into squabbling over who was responsible for the decision.

On May 10, San Francisco police showed up at the home of freelance journalist Bryan Carmody with a search warrant, a sledgehammer, and guns drawn. They wanted to find out who had leaked to Carmody some confidential information from police reports about the sudden death in February of Jeff Adachi, San Francisco's elected public defender.

Adachi had been a frequent critic of police conduct in San Francisco, and it's possible that whoever leaked certain salacious details about Adachi's death to Carmody was in the employ of the police department and was looking to tarnish Adachi's memory and legacy.

The motives for leaking the information aren't relevant to California's shield laws, which protect reporters from being forced to reveal their sources. But it does explain how this has turned into a massive political firestorm, with the mayor, city supervisors, and politicians expressing outrage about the leak, and also about how the police have been handling it.

Initially, Police Chief William Scott defended both the warrant and the raid, claiming that Carmody was suspected of being involved in some sort of "criminal conspiracy" in order to obtain the police reports illegally. That explanation poured kerosene on a growing fire and by Friday, Scott had completely reversed course. He acknowledged that the raid on Carmody was wrong and apologized, admitted the search was possibly illegal, and called for an outside investigation.

Rather than setting the city's police department back on track, however, Scott only made things worse. He said the application for the search warrant for Carmody's residence and his devices did not indicate that the target was a journalist, suggesting that the officers who arranged for the raid were concealing relevant information and violating department policy.

Those remarks did not sit well with the San Francisco Police Officers' Association, which responded over the weekend, describing Scott's statement as a "pathetic, deceitful, and shameful display of self-preservation, finger pointing, and political kowtowing." The police union is demanding Scott's resignation.

In the statement, Tony Montoya, the president of the union, claims that it was Scott who oversaw the investigation into the leak, that Scott was in the loop on the whole process, that Scott's office knew Carmody was a member of the press, and that it was Scott who didn't inform the sergeant who wrote the search warrant about Carmody's status as a reporter. Had the sergeant known Carmody was a journalist, Montoya added, the sergeant would have followed proper protocols.

In other words, Montoya claims that Scott is throwing his own officers under the bus rather than taking responsibility for his central part in a rushed leak investigation. The letter also attacks the prospects of an independent investigation, which is a reminder of the role that police unions typically play in trying to protect misbehaving officers from facing any sort of accountability.

We'll see how the independent investigation spools out, but at least the good news is that San Francisco police officials understand (or at least publicly acknowledge) that it was wrong to have sledgehammered Carmody's gate, invaded his home, and taken his stuff in order to track down the identify of a leaker who, in all likelihood, is one of their own.