Exclusive interview: Berkeley’s new police chief pledges more transparency

Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan

On his first day on the job, newly appointed police chief Michael Meehan walked into the conference room adjoining his office. With ample light and round bay windows overlooking the Martin Luther King Park, it is the nicest room in Berkeley’s police headquarters.

But Meehan was struck by the fact the blinds were shut, blocking out the view.  When he inquired about it, he was told that the blinds were kept closed so people would not look into the space where the police brass meet.

In one of his first acts, Meehan requested that the blinds be opened so that the room would be flooded with light and Berkeley citizens could see into police headquarters. Even as he made the order, Meehan was aware that the gesture could serve as a metaphor: on his watch, the Berkeley Police Department will strive to be more open and transparent than ever.

Meehan, 49, took over the police department’s top spot in December after serving 23 years in the Seattle police department. While Berkeley is much smaller than Seattle, with only 100,000 residents, it has big-city problems. It has the highest crime rate in the state for cites of comparable size.

Berkeleyside sat down with Chief Meehan last week to talk about the direction of the city and the department. This is Part One of the interview.

On the department’s relationship with the community:

“One of our goals is to be more open and more transparent, about not just about what we are doing but the problems we are seeing. I am of the mind the more we tell people the better. One of the things I tell our officers is that we are not the CIA. 99% of what we are doing is not secret and we are going to share it with people. As we open up, people will begin to see that we are just a group of people doing the best we can, working with the resources we have, working with the mission we have.”

On the drug problem in Berkeley:

“Do we have a drug problem? We do, just like many communities do. Drugs are an accelerant for crime. The more drugs you have, the more crime you have.  For us it’s differentiating between the indoor users and the outdoor violent sellers. There are a lot of drug arrests we could make, if we wanted to, but we would spend our time doing nothing but that. What I want to do is to focus the department on drug arrests that make sense. I want to focus on the people involved with violence, focus on the people who are involved with children, and what I call chronic, nuisance neighbors. If a grown man is in the privacy of his home and he is smoking one joint, the interest level of the police is very, very low. But if you are involving kids, or violence, or your neighbors keep calling to complain, that’s going to get our attention.”

On gang activity:

We do not have the gang problem Oakland has, we do not have the gang problem Richmond has. We do have one gang, the West Side Berkeley gang. It is a group we are looking at. We have several people in the department who I could consider experts on it. I can’t quantity the numbers they have. Certainly when we look at graffiti in the city, at least in parts of the city, they’ve made their appearance known.

On graffiti:

“It’s my perception that in an otherwise clean city, Berkeley has a very serious graffiti problem. Even by my own house there is graffiti on the stop sign, graffiti on the mail box. It just seems to be everywhere. Not only is it unsightly, it leads to a feeling of disorder, a feeling of fear. I was talking to a man in Strawberry Creek Park and he was telling me how crime was very, very bad and I asked him for some specific examples, for which he couldn’t give me even one. As he was talking to me he was standing in front of a wall that was covered in gang graffiti. So I know exactly what he is saying and I know where it is coming from.”

On reducing incidents at Berkeley High, where the department stations one officer:

“I can’t say at the organizational level what’s broken or what needs fixing; I am not there yet. I am learning. One of the things I would like to do – and I just walked through the school a few weeks ago and met with the principal – is to explore ways we can improve the safety, not just at Berkeley High School, but at all the schools. One of the things I always say is the most important public safety official in any city is not the police chief. It’s the school superintendent. If we can address crime at the ages of middle school and early high school you get people on the right path and they are very unlikely to get on the wrong path. That’s the danger time, middle school and early high school. We want to work very closely with the school to address any issues that they have.”

On modernizing the department:

“We use data to make a record, we use data to send to the FBI because they require it. But we rarely seem to use data to make decisions on crime fighting. We are really not at a point where we need to be. The data (the department uses) is several days to a month old. We need to get data that is no more than a day old.”

“But that is not the end state. The end state is predicting. There’s a saying in police circles if it is predictable it is preventable. We want to get to a point where we can actually anticipate where a crime will occur and to deploy resources to where it never happens in the first place. I don’t just want to catch people doing wrong, I want to prevent them from doing wrong.”

“Where we are today is in some ways a decade behind. Even though fundamentally we have a very sound organization, a college-educated work force, people who are dedicated, I don’t think the structure we have created allows them to be as successful as they can be. And that is one of my jobs, to ensure that they can really be successful. I have had communications with chiefs all over the region. I try and stay linked in with what is happening in the larger policing world. I think one of the things the department can do a better job at is understanding what is happening with policing. How do you make a modern policy agency? What are those 21st century tactics? What are the tools we need and what is the training we should be getting?”

On whether Berkeley police officers will ever get Tasers:

“The Taser is simply one tool. What I want is the perfect tool. I want something where we can push a button, everything stops and we take care of the lawful purpose we have intended and nobody gets hurt. That’s what I want. The problem is that it doesn’t exist.”

“Right now we are left with very few tools. I am sure you have heard me say that back in the 1800s police officers were given guns and clubs and today your typical police officer is given a gun and a club. In my mind, if we are going to be a 21st century agency then we need to have the tools, the training, the technology, the tactics, to be able to do that.”

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  • Louis

    The chief has been re-telling that story about the conference room blinds. However, if you ever visit the room or check the exterior of the building, it’s pretty clear there’s no opportunity for anyone outside to see inside because of the height or angles. Either whoever he asked about the blinds is an idiot, or the chief went looking for a metaphor and found one. As for transparency (there’s been lots already), drugs (not even close to Oakland-Richmond), gangs (one?!) and graffiti (well, OK), have at it. And as for crime data, do you really need a computer to figure out where crime is occurring in a city of 102,000? A look at the previous day’s crime reports would tell you everything you need to know. Hopefully the chief settles in quickly.

  • laura menard

    Transparency is definitely a major problem with BPD and the ENTIRE city. Which is why a broad base, well informed group of citizens have been working diligently on the development of a Sunshine Ordinance. The committee has just started the signature collection process to place the ordinance on the ballot. Perhaps Berkeleyside could invite one of the committee members to write up summary of the ordinance.

    Chief Meehan has been repeating several stories as he makes the rounds.
    Meehan is definitely correct about the lack of data analysis informing smart policing and some of the internal operational issues.

    I have met Meehan a few times now and what impresses me is his sincerity about reducing crime in Berkeley. I strongly suspect that this direction is coming from UCB pressure on the city manager to step up crime reduction since UCB reputation is at stake. However, while Meehan appears to be a capable politician he also seems to be equally committed public safety professional and is committed to reducing the number of victims of crime.

    I also think he is smart and ethical enough to actually provide the missing leadership in this city. But the jury is out until next year.

    On the gang stuff, not a complete picture, but a statement that meets the current community knowledge about WSB. Oakland Borders Brothers have been active in the last few years in my hood on Russell. And SSB activity has definitely subsided due to deaths, abatement and law enforcement. Hopefully no local kids will identify with SSB legacy and start it up again.

    Grafitti, well the supposed NEW plan developed under citizens pressure never did materialize. That is pretty much par for the course in Berkeley, lots of talk, obstruction, and then the pandering followed with solutions never implemented.

    I really hope Meehan is a serious person because Hambleton was absent.

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