Facing a growing public outcry, San Francisco’s police chief apologized on Friday for raiding a freelance journalist’s home and office to find out who leaked a police report into the unexpected death of the city’s public defender.
Chief William Scott told the San Francisco Chronicle the searches were probably illegal and said “I’m sorry that this happened.”
California’s shield law protects journalists from search warrants. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that journalists are free to report on newsworthy information contained in stolen documents.
Because the warrants are under seal, it’s not known what information police provided to support the searches or to what extent they disclosed that Bryan Carmody is a journalist.
Scott said in a statement he reviewed all material related to the searches, and he was concerned “by a lack of due diligence by department investigators in seeking search warrants and appropriately addressing Mr. Carmody’s status as a member of the news media.”
“This has raised important questions about our handling of this case and whether the California shield law was violated,” the statement said.
Carmody was handcuffed for six hours on May 10 while police armed with a sledgehammer searched for evidence to determine who provided a confidential police report on the death of the late public defender, Jeff Adachi, after he refused to reveal his source.
The case alarmed journalism advocates and put pressure on elected leaders in the politically liberal city to defend the press.
Scott initially defended the raid, telling the city Police Commission his department went through the appropriate legal process.
On Tuesday, Scott said Carmody “crossed the line” and suspected the journalist took part in a criminal conspiracy to steal an internal police report, motivated by profit or animosity toward Adachi.
Carmody said he did not pay for the report or conspire to steal it but simply acquired it as part of his work as a journalist.
Scott said Mayor London Breed requested an independent probe into the way police executed the search warrant, which could lead to charges, and the ongoing investigation into who leaked the report, which could lead to discipline for officers.
Scott said the department will not use any evidence seized in the raids.
“Journalists and everyone in our City deserve a police department that will maintain the constitutional rights of all,” Scott said.
Reporters and other First Amendment organizations want a judge to revoke search warrants that authorized the raid and to unseal the materials submitted in support of them.
“We’re encouraged by the chief’s apology, but we think there needs to be real reform here,” Carmody’s attorney, Ben Berkowitz, said. “The city needs to take steps to make sure nothing like this happens again to journalists.”