SFPD Tries to Fire Cop for Protesting Illegal Search of Journalist's Records

Categories: Law & Order
Matt Smith
Frank Lee, a 24-year SFPD veteran, is on the docket for resisting an order to search a journalist's records
In this week's column, I describe how the San Francisco Police Department is attempting to fire a 24-year veteran for resisting orders to illegally search a journalist's records.

Oakland First Amendment attorney David Greene was astonished by the move: "The right thing to do is not to purposefully and knowingly break the law ... it does seem odd to me that that decision would be considered grounds for discipline against an officer."

The quest to fire Officer Frank Lee is even more extraordinary when one considers that the Department has not disciplined six officers whose illegal searches have scuttled 120 criminal cases.

Lee's dismissal case, currently before the San Francisco Police Commission, begs the question: Do cops in this town have to conduct illegal searches to keep their jobs?

Though Lee, up until now, had a clean record, he's operated under the a cloud thanks, ironically, to a by-the-book approach that in any other town might make him a hero. Two decades ago, Lee arrested a drunk driving suspect who happened to be the son of Frank Jordan, the San Francisco mayor who'd previously been chief of police. Lee's superiors accused him of lacking the "decency" to cut the ex-chief's son a break.

The Department's current beef against Lee involves a search warrant to get the records of photojournalist Alex Welsh. Welsh earned national notoriety after he was found by detectives in 2009 snapping photographs at a murder scene. Lee, a former sex-crimes detective, was the lead inspector on that case, and he felt his top priority was to convince Welsh to provide evidence, then take the stand, against the killers of Norris Bennett.

Lee's superiors had other ideas. Lee tells the Police Commission that he was chewed out for wanting to coddle Welsh into providing evidence. Lee quotes his lieutenant saying:

"It's fucking bullshit, your soft bullshit approach. You're not in sex crimes anymore. You're in homicide. This is the way we do things. I want that evidence."

In the end, Lee did perform the search, which ended up producing no valuable evidence. Welsh clammed up, citing the portion of the California evidence code that makes journalists' records immune from police search. A judge subsequently declared the search illegal, as Lee had warned it might be.

Rather than issue a mea culpa, Lee's bosses are now trying to have him fired for insubordination for arguing against the search, then not executing it fast enough.

"Once a judge signs a warrant, officers are duty bound to execute them," says Richard Hechler, the SFPD attorney assigned to seek Lee's dismissal.

Matt Smith
Richard Hechler, the attorney assigned to prove Lee should be fired for balking at executing an illegal search

Follow us on Twitter at @TheSnitchSF and @SFWeekly

My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest

If ever there was a cop's cop, it's Frank Lee! What a railroad job!. The San Francisco Police Experiment needs more cops like Frank. Go Frank. Go!  Kudos to Mr. Smith for his reporting of this important story. No one can accuse him of being bamboozled. Do I smell a Pulitzer?


ummm, hechler, if the judge ruled the warrant invalid because of the shield law, doesn't that render the warrant issue moot? pretty weak case you've got there...


Grace - the judge ruled that AFTER the warrant had been issued and executed.

Good job Frank Lee!

Now Trending

From the Vault


©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.