Stop — hammer time. Freelance cameraman Bryan Carmody posted these surveillance images of San Francisco police officers' Friday raid of his home on social media. It is, to put it mildly, not a good look.

Freelancer who peddled lurid Jeff Adachi police report has been rendered a First Amendment hero by grotesque police overstep


The San Francisco Police Department, never one for subtlety, took a literal sledgehammer to the door of a freelance TV cameraman Friday. A phalanx of armed cops served a search warrant and carted off a goodly number of Bryan Carmody’s possessions in the latest bizarre reverberation following the sudden and unexpected February death of public defender Jeff Adachi.

This was a transcendently heavy-handed and misguided move, and one that produced a number of toxic byproducts. For one, Carmody — who obtained the leaked Adachi police report and peddled it around town, selling it to a purported three TV stations — has been lionized and transformed into a First Amendment hero and martyr.

The city of San Francisco, and its police department, should be deeply embarrassed. Mere hours after Adachi succumbed, the police report had been improperly leaked, ostensibly by cops who despised him. Its tawdry details oozed about the Internet — supplementing phone calls members of the press received bandying about additional tawdry details, many of which proved to be unsubstantiated. After being called on the carpet for this, the SFPD’s response has been to hit hard at the outside man, storming the home of a freelance TV cameraman. (Despite what you’ve seen on Law & Order, the District Attorney was not consulted prior to this raid). 

It’s actually impressive for the SFPD to botch this so badly at both ends. This action was not one that evinced strength or competence; the department, unable to maintain internal control, responded by launching an external show of force.

If the SFPD’s internal investigation is going well, this is an odd way of signaling that.  

As the rancid cherry atop this putrid sundae, whatever information about the source of that SFPD leak the department’s internal affairs officers gleaned via raiding Carmody may well be rendered null and void. That’s what happened previously when the SFPD attempted to use a warrant to pry away material from a journalist and was smacked down in court.

In a way, it all may be sadly fitting. “If the police department was more professional,” said a longtime Adachi colleague with a sigh, “Jeff wouldn’t have had all those wins.”

Jeff Adachi, 1959-2019. Photo by Joe Eskenazi.

California’s “shield law” protecting journalists is strong enough and specific enough that First Amendment lawyers initially figured that the judges who signed the warrants entitling Friday’s raid on Carmody’s home and office, Victor Hwang and Gail Dekreon, hadn’t been informed that he’s a journalist.

But that apparently isn’t so. Your humble narrator has learned that they purportedly knew full well that he is a credentialed journalist.*

Well, that’s odd. Section 1070 of the state’s Evidence Code states that no print or TV journalist can be held in contempt for failing to turn over sources for both stories and “unpublished information.” Section 1524(g) of the state penal code is a blanket affirmation that a search warrant cannot be issued for any of the items described in Section 1070 of the Evidence Code.

And yet two judges — two — signed off on those warrants.

Attorney and UC Berkeley lecturer Geoffrey King predicts they will be overruled. It’s happened in the past, right here in the city: In 2009, he points out, the SFPD executed a warrant to wrest photographs of a murder scene away from a student photojournalist — and a judge, citing the shield law, later rescinded it. The police were forced to return “photographs, files, cameras, and DNA evidence” hauled off from the journalist’s home (This being San Francisco, the SFPD attempted to fire the cop who was reluctant to serve the search warrant because he maintained it was illegal).

In 2010, King personally represented independent journalist David Morse, and argued that the University of California Police deployed a warrant to improperly search Morse’s camera and seize his photos. A judge agreed.

We may yet learn the judges’ rationale. Today, it remains a mystery. The claim that Carmody isn’t a journalist doesn’t work. He’s been gathering video footage of crime scenes, emergencies, and other TV news staples for decades.

“Everybody else was outside of the zoo. He was inside of the zoo,” recalls a veteran TV journalist of how Carmody scored exclusive video of the Christmas 2007 deadly tiger rampage at the San Francisco Zoo. “He has an unmarked car. He’s friends with the cops. He gets a little closer than the rest of us. … We depend on him for the pictures, and then we run out and verify all the information. He points his camera at the cops-and-robbers shit we all live on.”

Bryan Carmody is led off in handcuffs in his surveillance footage from Friday’s raid.

Perhaps the judges simply felt that even if Carmody is a journalist, what he was doing — peddling a leaked police report to whomever would pay — wasn’t journalism. That it was more akin to fencing stolen goods than working a story.

Needless to say, Carmody disagrees with this notion. “I reject the characterization of me ‘selling’ the report,” he says. “We put packages together.” Those can include “video, inside information, off-the-record interviews, on-the-record interviews, the whole deal … sometimes they include documents.”

For a freelance cameraman — a stringer — to hawk these “packages” is the epitome of normal, Carmody says.

And yet, a TV editor who received Carmody’s Adachi “package” tells me it contained “very limited video. It was mostly photos of the police report.”  

Buying documents — which, unlike the photos and videos Carmody takes, have an uncertain chain of custody — is a hinky practice, TV reporters, editors, and executives say.

“I cannot think of a time when any news organization I was involved with agreed to pay for leaked documents,” Dan Rosenheim tells me. He served as the city editor and managing editor of the Chronicle for nine years before 22 years atop KRON and KPIX. “I’m not taking a position on the rightness or wrongness of that. But it’s not common practice.”

Photo courtesy SFPD.

And yet, neither is taking a sledgehammer to a journalist’s door and confiscating his effects. And, regardless of what you think about Carmody or his methods, this was the wrong move. The full-throated nationwide outcry among journalists and the battalions of rabid online comments comparing San Francisco’s government to Red China were utterly and totally predictable. The SFPD ceding Carmody leverage and righteousness and exposure and a platform he’d never have otherwise had was also utterly and totally predictable. 

But this was also the wrong move legally. And the unnecessary move.  

“Get a subpoena: That’s what they should have done if they felt they had a good legal argument,” explains King. Get a subpoena and fight it out in court, in broad daylight. “The distinct danger of search warrants is that they’re entirely one-sided and secured behind closed doors — which is not consistent with a free and open press where journalists can do their jobs.”

Carmody agrees: “They should’ve dragged me in front of a judge who’d say, ‘You need to hand over those documents or I’ll put you in jail.’ And I’d have done it.” He pauses. “They should’ve handled this in court. Like adults.”

Oof. This SFPD investigation deserves its own investigation. Who, indeed, watches the watchmen? Adults, hopefully.

*An affidavit unsealed on July 23 reveals that the SFPD in fact obfuscated regarding Carmody’s profession and did not state that he is a journalist. Of note, the police, judges, or anyone using Google could discern he is a working journalist in two minutes’ time. 

What information, if any, was communicated orally is not known.

An affidavit unsealed in early August, however, reveals that Judge Victor Hwang was given ample information indicating that Carmody was a freelance journalist. 

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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6 Comments

  1. Joe,

    Juicier and jucier.

    Betting it was the FBI who insisted upon knocking down the
    door instead of knocking or using a key.

    Recall the Ryan Kelly Chamberlain case?

    He was the muscle behind Feinstein’s SF SOS who was arrested
    for having bomb precursor materials and gathering various types
    of poisons.

    I was told that the group broke up because Chamberlain suggested
    that the best way to deal with yours truly was to kill me.

    Fisher agreed and Feinstein and Hellman left the group to languish.

    When the FBI came to bust Chamberlain, an agent stood across the
    street with him as the strike team approached the Cow Hollow dwelling.

    Chamberlain offered to walk across the street and open it with his
    key and FBI demurred.

    They prefer to knock down doors which they did in both of these cases
    we’re bs’ing about.

    Bet there’s great FBI footage of their agents at work at both sites.

    That kind of thing is great PR for FBI.

    Not SFPD.

    Last thing they want is to be in front of any cameras anytime.

    Google Ryan Chamberlain and poisons and bombs and read about
    (according to him) he repeatedly tried to poison political opponents
    but couldn’t get right mix of crap online.

    Very sorry to read that Victor Hwang signed off on the warrant.

    Entire Left in City backed him in his run for judge and I’m almost
    certain that none of us thought he’d make his first big splash by
    agreeing to raid a reporter’s crib.

    Go Warriors tonite!

    h.

  2. A clumsy attempt to show the supervisors that they’re doing something while also creating a “fruit of the poisonous tree” defense for when the leaking cop is ultimately caught? As for me, I was glad to know the newsworthy details of Adachi’s untimely demise.

    1. Campers,

      I don’t believe anything the cops or
      Medical Examiner’s Office say.

      I’m just treading water til Shohei Ohtani returns.

      As a pitcher on the disabled list he hit 21 homers.

      Warriors up by 9 at half.

      h.

  3. If the evidence seized by the SFPD is ruled inadmissible due to the shield law, does that mean that any evidence that identifies a lawbreaking cop cannot be used in an internal SFPD disciplinary process as well?

  4. It’s like police brass and Internal Affairs know that they can’t expect the truth from many police officers who could be questioned about this. Since they don’t expect the truth from their own officers under oath, they went this First Amendment warping way.

    Is it too much to expect that the norm is that San Francisco cops will testify truthful when asked questions about who and how of the released the report> If we can’t expect police to tell the truth when questioned under oath, they San Francisco will miss Jeff Adachi.

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