Skip to main content

A possible vigilante repeatedly bear-sprayed the homeless. Why didn’t SF Police warn the public?

A person lying on the sidewalk is sprayed with bear mace.
A screengrab from a still image taken from surveillance footage on Nov. 6, 2021, shows a man spraying a homeless person in the face with pepper spray or bear spray. | Source: San Francisco Public Defenders Office

It was not until a former San Francisco official got bashed over the head with a metal rod that the public learned that homeless people have been repeatedly attacked with bear spray in and around the Marina District.

Now, Police Chief Bill Scott is facing questions about why his department never warned the public about the apparent threat to homeless people despite knowing about the possible crime spree for at least several months. 

The apparent vigilantism, which began as early as November 2021, came to light this week as part of the criminal case against a homeless man who allegedly assaulted former Fire Commissioner Don Carmignani.

Kevin Benedicto is one of three members of the civilian Police Commission overseeing San Francisco police who told The Standard that they believe the public should have known about the bear-spray attacks sooner.

“If we are going to have an honest conversation about public safety in San Francisco, that needs to include the crimes against unhoused individuals,” Benedicto said. “I am troubled that we are only learning about this now.”

When news of Carmignani’s beating first surfaced, the incident was framed as an unprovoked assault on a man who was simply trying to remove homeless individuals from the front of his mother’s property. Garrett Doty, a 24-year-old homeless man, was arrested and accused of beating Carmignani.

“Right now, one of my dear friends is in the hospital because last night in the Marina he was attacked by a homeless person with a metal pipe,” Supervisor Catherine Stefani, whose District 2 covers the Marina, said of Carmignani after the attack.

But much like in the recent killing of tech executive Bob Lee, where many people wrongly jumped to the conclusion that he was the victim of a random street crime, the Carmignani case is calling early assumptions into question.

Doty’s attorney revealed the bear-spray attacks this week and said her client was acting in self-defense

The lawyer, Kleigh Hathaway, said prosecutors on Tuesday gave her eight police reports documenting the bear-spray attacks, and noted a police investigator deemed them “possibly related” to the Carmignani case.

Hathaway thinks that the cases are related because Carmignani appears to match the description of the suspect in the earlier incidents. He also confronted Doty with a can of bear spray before being beaten, she said.

Carmignani and his mother live next door to each other. All eight of the attacks occurred within a four-block radius of their homes, according to Hathaway.

Doty was released from jail after Carmignani didn’t show up to court to testify against him.

A woman speaks into microphones held by reporters, with onlookers and a man's profile visible.
Kleigh Hathaway, attorney for Garrett Doty, said her client acted in self-defense.

Carmignani denies attacking homeless

An attorney for Carmignani says he is not the perpetrator of the attacks. Carmignani has not been arrested or charged. 

Police have not explained their reasoning behind the possible connection between the repeated bear-spray attacks and Carmignani’s beating.

In an interview with The Standard on Friday, Scott said he did not know whether one person was responsible for the eight attacks or when his investigators first determined they were possibly connected.

But he described the Carmignani case as a “triggering event.”

“What brought everything together was this case,” Scott said. “Sometimes when people see what they see on the news, they come forward.” 

Scott said he couldn’t tell the Police Commission earlier because, “we didn’t know sooner.” He said doing so might have also compromised the Doty case.

However, his department appears to have known about the string of attacks as far back as November 2022. An officer noted the trend in a Nov. 24, 2022, police report reviewed by The Standard.

“There have been a series of battery incidents involving pepper spray/bear spray that have occurred in the early morning hours in Northern Station that appear to be targeting the transient population,” the officer wrote.

Northern Station covers Cow Hollow and the Marina, where the eight spray attacks possibly linked to the Carmignani case occurred.

An officer also noted the crime spree in a December 2022 report documenting another attack.

“Due to the fact that all victims have been transient individuals and pepper-sprayed by a similar suspect in the same area around the same time,” the officer began, “I believe the suspect is targeting the unhoused population for reasons unknown.”

A man with a neat mustache, in a blue shirt and dark jacket, is glancing to the side.
Former San Francisco Fire Commissioner Don Carmignani

Police Commissioners Express Concern

The police chief said he could not say whether Carmignani was a suspect and that the attacks remain under investigation.

He said there could be more bear-spray attacks that went unreported, particularly because the victims are from a vulnerable population that may not be comfortable cooperating with police.

“We are going to do everything we can to string these together,” Scott said. “But if there are any other people that this has happened to, we encourage them to call it in.”

Police Commission President Cindy Elias and member Jim Byrne were dismayed not to have learned about the attacks earlier.

“All victims regardless of status or class deserve protection, and if these crimes were happening, we should have known about them,” Elias said. “It’s troubling that these crime victims don’t get the same attention as others.”

Byrne said the attacks were something that the “people of San Francisco should have been aware about.”

Correction: This story was updated with the proper spelling of Garrett Doty’s name.