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San Francisco police chief reverses on raid of journalist's home and apologizes

San Francisco police chief reverses on raid of journalist's home and apologizes
San Francisco Chief of Police William Scott apologized Friday for raiding a journalist's home and office in a leak investigation. (Eric Risberg / Associated Press)

San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott apologized Friday for his officers’ raid of a journalist’s home to identify a confidential source, and said he was referring his department’s investigation into the leak of a report on Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s death to another agency.

Scott’s public concession marked an abrupt reversal from just a few days ago, when he publicly stated his suspicion that journalist Bryan Carmody committed a crime by obtaining the secret report on Adachi’s death from a Police Department employee and selling the document as part of a package of reporting to local news outlets.

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The change of heart came after Scott said he conducted a “top-to-bottom review” of the department’s inquiry into the leak of the Adachi report along with the May 10 raid of Carmody’s home and company office. The chief singled out the information police shared with the judges who signed off on the warrants.

“I am specifically 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,” Scott said in a statement. “This has raised important questions about our handling of this case and whether the California shield law was violated.”

Scott, who was one of three finalists for the LAPD’s top job last year, told the San Francisco Chronicle: “I’m sorry that this happened. I’m sorry to the people of San Francisco. I’m sorry to the mayor.”

He added: “We know there were some concerns in that investigation and we know we have to fix it.”

Carmody’s attorneys said in a statement that they were pleased Scott expressed contrition, but said their client was also owed an apology.

“There needs to be real reform in the department to ensure that the SFPD respects the First Amendment and the independence of a free press,” said the lawyers, Thomas Burke and Ben Berkowitz.

Police arrived at Carmody’s home on the morning of May 10, armed with a sledgehammer, before handcuffing the journalist and seizing his equipment. Officers hauled away notebooks, hard drives and phones. During a search of Carmody’s office, North Bay News, investigators found the sought-after report on Adachi’s death.

For the duration of the search, about six hours, Carmody was restrained. Scott noted that guns were in the home, but Carmody’s attorney said the handcuffs had the effect of preventing a call for legal counsel.

Since news of the search broke, journalists and 1st Amendment advocates have voiced their outrage that a reporter could be searched in such a manner. The state’s Shield Law, which is enshrined in the California Constitution, protects journalists from being held in contempt for refusing to identify their sources. The penal code specifically bars police from executing search warrants for materials covered by the Shield Law.

“It’s something you’d expect out of an authoritarian regime, not the city of San Francisco,” attorney David Snyder, director of the First Amendment Coalition, said at the time.

Several local officials had applauded the police investigation.

Adachi, who was 59, was a beloved figure who gained a reputation as a police watchdog. Many supporters viewed the leak of his death report as an overt smear attempt by some in the Police Department. Adachi had spent his final moments with a woman who was not his wife, at an apartment he had arranged for the weekend. The medical examiner concluded he died of an accidental overdose of cocaine and alcohol.

Facing national outrage over the search of Carmody’s home, officials broke their silence and gradually spoke out.

Aaron Peskin, one of the city’s 11 supervisors, condemned the raid as “attack on journalistic freedom.”

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Mayor London Breed had told KQED-TV that she supported the search. “Our role is to follow the law, and the judges ultimately make the decisions,” Breed told the station. “And so at this point, you know, I support their decision.”

As anger increased across the city — and beyond — Breed backtracked.

“I am not OK with police raids on reporters. We need to do better,” the mayor said.

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