Police Power in San Francisco: Harassment, physical abuse and detention of a journalist is getting the public hearing it deserves. The San Francisco Chronicle has a pointed editorial about this outrage in its May 14, 2019 edition.
New York Times 5.13.2019
SAN FRANCISCO — When two San Francisco police officers knocked on Bryan Carmody’s door in April they politely requested that Mr. Carmody, a freelance videographer, reveal who had leaked a police report to him about the mysterious death of the city’s public defender.
“They were nice about it,” Mr. Carmody said. “Of course I said, ‘No, I’m not going to tell you guys.’”
But when a dozen officers returned to his home on Friday, this time their guns were drawn and they came equipped with a search warrant, a sledgehammer and a battering ram.
In an interview Monday, as concern spread among journalists and civil rights activists about his treatment, Mr. Carmody said his wrists were still sore from being handcuffed for six hours while the police raided his house and seized laptops, phones and hard drives — including all the images and documents he had archived from his 29-year career as a reporter and cameraman.
“I said, ‘Why didn’t you guys just knock?’” Mr. Carmody, 49, said. “My biggest concern is to get my equipment back.”
Mr. Carmody’s lawyer, Thomas Burke, said Monday that he would pursue legal action against the San Francisco Police Department, requesting that all the equipment be returned to his client.
“Part of the reason there has been such a reaction to this,” Mr. Burke said, “is that you don’t want it to become the norm that when law enforcement wants information they send 10 guys with a sledgehammer and guns to get it.”
The raid has raised alarm among free press advocates who question why two trial court judges allowed a search for communication about the leaked document, which was described in the search warrant as “stolen or embezzled” property. Free speech advocates have also questioned why two F.B.I. agents were present during the raid.
The Police Department did not return calls about the investigation. A spokeswoman in the F.B.I.’s San Francisco office confirmed the agents’ presence but declined to say how they were involved.
“The seizure and search of the guy’s home and office were totally inappropriate and out of bounds,” said Matt Drange, the co-chair of the freedom of information committee of the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “Publishing a leaked document is not breaking the law.”
The case stems from the death in February of Jeff Adachi, the city’s public defender, who was beloved by San Francisco’s liberal elites but who had a contentious relationship with the Police Department.
Mr. Carmody obtained a police report soon after Mr. Adachi’s death that said the public defender collapsed in an apartment with a woman who was not his wife. Supporters of Mr. Adachi said they suspected that the Police Department had leaked the report to tarnish the reputation of its longtime adversary: Mr. Adachi had campaigned against police abuses, including a scandal involving racist text messages among officers. Confronted with the subsequent outrage, the police started an investigation into the leak.
An autopsy released a month after his death revealed that Mr. Adachi, 59, died from a mixture of cocaine, alcohol and a weakened heart. The female friend had called 911 after Mr. Adachi collapsed in a loaned apartment.
The public defender’s office initially offered strong support for the police raid on Mr. Carmody’s house. Manohar Raju, who took over from Mr. Adachi, issued a statement to a San Francisco Chronicle reporter that repeated criticism of the leak and praised the police for “working to get to the bottom of it.”
On Monday, Mr. Raju seemed to walk back some of his support.
“Nothing about my statements should be interpreted as condoning specific police actions or tactics,” Mr. Raju said in a new statement.
Mr. Adachi’s supporters say they have been dismayed by the release of the personal information surrounding his death, kindling a debate about the line between public and private details of a prominent person.
Outrage over the leaked report was channeled into a hearing last month by the San Francisco board of supervisors, at which senior police officials were asked to explain how it happened. One supervisor, Hillary Ronen, called it a politically motivated attack. Mr. Adachi’s widow, Mutsuko Adachi, who attended the hearing, described it as “despicable.”
Mr. Carmody said the police report was crucial to understanding an unexpected death of an important city official. Initially reporters had been told that Mr. Adachi had died while “on the road” for work.
The public defender’s office, without offering evidence, has suggested that the police report was sold to the news media. Mr. Carmody denied paying anyone for the report; so did The Chronicle, which obtained the report separately.
Mr. Carmody’s job as a freelancer is to gather information and footage and then sell the produced stories to his clients, mainly national and Bay Area television stations. In the case of Mr. Adachi’s death, he said, the story he sold included footage, interviews and the police report.
Police departments in California have wide discretion over when to release police reports but in the case of Mr. Adachi it was leaked anonymously.
Mr. Raju of the public defender’s office said he believed that police reports should remain confidential unless they expose government abuse or illegal conduct.
“Certainly they should not be released to satisfy curiosity, embarrass any parties or as revenge against those who have questioned conduct by particular police officers,” Mr. Raju said.
California offers strong protections for journalists who choose not to reveal confidential sources. A central question in Mr. Carmody’s case is whether the authorities violated those laws and whether the judges who signed the warrants were aware that Mr. Carmody was a journalist.
Mr. Carmody said he did not want to get involved in the politics of the issue, and a friend has started an online campaign to help finance the replacement of his equipment.
“My goal right now is to get my business up and running,” he said. “Believe me, no one is getting rich being a freelance videographer in San Francisco.”