Police: We responded properly to Cukor’s murder

The home where Peter Cukor lived, off Park Hills in Berkeley, is largely concealed behind foliage and a wall. Photos: Tracey Taylor

Berkeley police have reviewed the agency’s actions on the night Peter Cukor was murdered and do not believe they took any missteps, Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan said Thursday.

But media reports have created the inaccurate impression that police ignored an emergency call from Cukor because they were too busy monitoring an Occupy march.

That was the message that Chief Meehan and some of his top staff delivered to Berkeleyside on Thursday afternoon in a wide-ranging interview that lasted more than an hour.

Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan

“We looked at everything and it doesn’t add up to a mistake,” said Lt. Andrew Greenwood, who attended the meeting along with Chief Meehan and Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, the BPD’s public information officer. “It was a horrible and tragic set of coincidental circumstances.”

“We have done a lot of “what if-ing,” said Chief Meehan. “This has hit hard. A number of officers are friends with the children. It has been very difficult.”

The review included analyzing the way the two Feb. 18 calls from the Cukor household were handled and comparing their dispatch and prioritization with the protocols of the Oakland Police Department, the San Francisco Police Department, the California Highway Patrol, and other agencies.

“We found we’re not inconsistent with what the police world is doing,” said Chief Meehan.

The heart of the controversy, which has promoted a number of city councilmembers to call for a community meeting on March 8, is how police responded to Cukor’s first call.

Cukor, 67, a business management consultant, returned with his wife to their home at 2 Park Gate, up at the top of the Berkeley Hills near Grizzly Peak Boulevard, around 8:45 pm on Feb 18. The couple spotted a man hanging out by their garage and told him to leave. At 8:47 pm, Cukor called the police non-emergency number and calmly told dispatch there was a trespasser on his property, according to police.

20-minute response goal

Since Cukor was not reporting a crime-in-progress or a life-threatening emergency, police ranked the call Priority 2. The police try to respond to these types of calls within 20 minutes, according to Lt. Greenwood. Berkeley police get about 10 of these calls a day and queue them up in order of urgency.

In fact, there were at least two other Priority 2 calls on Beat Two that night that had come in before Cukor’s call, said Lt. Greenwood. One was a fire and the other was another “suspicious circumstance,” call, he said.

At the time of Cukor’s first call, police had decided to only respond to Priority 1 calls. It was shift change, and police were about to start a briefing on an Occupy march that was supposed to make its way from Oakland to UC Berkeley. Police brass wanted to inform the patrol officers and sergeants about the march and the police’s mission in monitoring it.

Lt. Andrew Greenwood. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

“It’s really important that we have a briefing,” said Lt. Greenwood. “We wouldn’t just say (on the radio) ‘Okay officers on Team 6 get ready for a march to come into Berkeley, it’s going to do this.’ We gather in a room, we look at the route, we talk about what’s known, we talk about what our mission is going to be, and what’s going to happen. So that’s the purpose of the briefing.”

News reports have suggested that because of this focus on the Occupy march there were not sufficient resources out on the street. This is not true, said Chief Meehan. But it did mean police were not responding to Priority 2 calls.

At 8:59 pm, an officer who was on patrol on Cedar Street near Shattuck Avenue called into dispatch to ask if he should respond to any of the Priority 2 calls. He was told not to, because police were only responding at that time to Priority 1 calls. But even if he had been sent to respond to one of the calls, it might not have been to Cukor’s house, since the officer was much closer to the other suspicious circumstance call that had come in before Cukor’s call, said Chief Meehan. He was about two miles away from the Cukor residence. It is only in hindsight that people saw that Cukor’s call was more urgent.

“The officer didn’t say ‘I see this call at 2 Park Gate, I’d like to go to it,” said Chief Meehan. “The officer says, ‘hey, I’m available, I see a whole slew of holding calls, one being a fire, would you like me to go to the fire or would you like me to go to one of these suspicious circumstance calls?’ One of those suspicious circumstance calls had come in minutes before the 2 Park Gate and was one block from where the officer was, approximately one block away. I can’t say where the dispatcher would have sent him, but it wouldn’t have been out of bounds of reality or reason to send him to something that was only a block away, which was also a Priority 2 suspicious case.”

Sense that police were indifferent

But the fact that this officer offered to respond to one of the Priority 2 calls and was told not to has created a sense that Berkeley police were indifferent, police contend.

It leaves “the impression that BPD stood idly by for 13 minutes while an emergency call was out there,” said Lt. Greenwood. “And that an officer, seeing an emergency call, offered to take it and was told no, don’t take it, we’re not dispatching because of Occupy. That is the way people read the Chronicle coverage and it got repeated over and over and over the next 72 hours. So it’s got factual pieces to it, but they are structured in a fallible way.”

At 9:01, two minutes after the Berkeley police officer inquired whether he should respond to one of the “suspicious circumstances,” calls, Andrea Cukor called 911 to report that the trespasser was bludgeoning her husband with a ceramic planter. Berkeley police immediately responded to the Cukor house and arrived there at 9:08 pm, according to Sgt. Kusmiss. Cukor died later that night at Highland Hospital.

At 9:22 pm, police arrested 23-year old Daniel Jordan Dewitt, who was covered in blood and was wandering a few blocks from the Cukors’ residence. Dewitt, who has a long history of schizophrenia, has been charged with murder but legal proceedings have been suspended while he undergoes a psychiatric evaluation. DeWitt had told Cukor he had to come onto his property because he was looking for “Zoey,” according to court documents. Dewitt’s family has said “Zoey” is an imaginary girlfriend.

City Councilmember Susan Wengraf, who attended a Park Hills community meeting with Chief Meehan on Wednesday night, and is organizing the March 8 meeting, said the calm tone of Cukor’s first call made police think there was not an emergency. When the 911 call came in, police responded within minutes — even though officers were also dealing with the Occupy march.

“It was a confluence of decisions that led up to this horrible ending,” said Wengraf. “Everybody is very saddened by it and frustrated by it, but I think police did what they did based on how the first call came through. The first call was very factual. It was not described as a home intrusion and there was no sense of urgency in the first call.”

Christine Daniel, the interim city manager, reviewed the calls, said Wengraf, along with Chief Meehan. Berkeley police have declined to release tapes or transcripts of the Cukors’ calls because they may be evidence in any upcoming trial.

Call would not have been handled differently

Even if Cukor had originally called 911, Berkeley police would not have handled this call differently since there did not appear to be a crime in progress or a life-threatening situation, said Chief Meehan. It doesn’t really matter what number someone uses to call the police because dispatchers are trained to ask questions and assess the urgency of any call.

“There is a misconception that if you call 911 the person will send the police and if you call on the non-emergency line they won’t send the police,” said Lt. Greenwood. “When people call 911 or non-emergency in Berkeley, it’s going to the same room. The issue is what is being reported to the dispatcher. They are trained to assess what’s being told and to categorize it as a type of call for service.”

Added Chief Meehan: “It’s incredibly unfair to this family to leave an impression out there that implies that because they called one number or another number somehow they didn’t get service and this would have been different. That’s absolutely, completely false… It’s very unfair to that family to imply that they did something wrong.”

Related:
Councilmember calls public meeting after Berkeley murder [02.29.12]
Murder suspect trial delayed for psychological assessment [02.24.12]
Murder suspect was looking for fictional girlfriend [02.23.12]
Councilmember: unanswered questions over murder [02.23.12]
Alleged killer had been in and out of mental institutions [02.21.12]
Berkeley hills neighbors react with shock to brutal murder [02.20.12]
Intruder assaults, kills homeowner on Grizzly Peak [02.19.12]

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  • Rachel A.

    Frances and Berkeleyside: thanks for this interview and continuing to follow-up on this very sad story.

  • BerkeleyCommonSense

    Ultimately there is one person to blame for this, and he was arrested.

  • MFox327

    The officer offered to respond to Cukor’s call at 8:59.  Cukor’s wife called 2 minutes later to report the bludgeoning. Assuming it took her about 30 seconds to see what was happenning, react, and call the police, that leaves about 1 minute and 30 sec for the officer that had offered to respond to get to Cukor’s house. He was at Shattuck and Cedar. Even if the officer went straight to Cukor (and not to one of the other priority 2 calls), there is absolutely, positively, no way that he could have gotten there in time to prevent Cukor’s death.  It was a tragic event, end of story.

  • bgal4

    Time to write the Alameda County Board of Supervisors and demand the county enact Laura’s Law.

    This was preventable,  Dewitt’s family and medical providers begged the judge in Jan to institutionalize Daniel.

    Let’s finally close the program gaps and provide proper services for the severally mentally ill service resistance citizens.

  • John Holland

    It sounds like Chief Meehan is saying exactly what I’ve been saying. I still say it’s the most reasonable explanation.

    However, critics of my POV have a fair point: if Mr. Cukor’s call to the NON-emergency line sounded as if it was an emergency, that would make things different. However, I think this is very unlikely: who would call the police to report a life-threatening emergency right outside their door, and then… step outside the door?

    Personally, I’d still like to hear that 911 call, just so that we can confirm for sure the P2 was the proper classification. Until we have proof that the police should have known this was an emergency, we have no proof of misdoing. 

    Great reporting, Berkeleyside! Do you know if we’ll ever hear the call?

  • Terrace View

    re:
    “News reports have suggested that because of this focus on the Occupy
    march there were not sufficient resources out on the street. This is not
    true, said Chief Meehan. But it did mean police were not responding to
    Priority 2 calls.”

    This was a terrible tragedy. While it is unclear that such an event could have been prevented by the police, surely, there ought to be more discussion as to how BPD et al. will handle future situations of this kind, especially since (a) crime is not going away (b) many folks with mental problems are left to roam the streets unsupervised and (C) Occupy Oakland and other causes are not going to disappear. Thus, there are going to be situations similar to this one in the future.         In light of this , how can Berkeley and its police department work out a solution that will avoid tragic results in the future?

  • Tizzilish

    This is one time when it seems really inappropriate to blame the cops. This was a tragedy caused by a mentally ill person.  A quicker police response is unlikely to have changed the outcome.

    I don’t want to sound like I blame the victim, because I assuredly do not, but I wonder why Cukor called the nonemergency line but then went to the fire station for help, indicating he was concerned about waiting for a police response.  Was Dewitt just continuing to hang around or was Dewitt threatening violence? And if Dewitt was threatening violence, why did Cukor call the non emergency line?  I would consider a possible intruder worthy of calling the police emergency line and wonder about why folks choose non-emergency?

    I call non-emergency line for loud bands at David Brower and for parking violations. I don’t think I would ever call the non-emergency line if interface between strange acting humans and other humans were involved. We’ll never know what Cukor was thinking but it does seem as if he made some wrong choices. Tragic.  It would be interesting to know why he made the choices he did so we might educate ourselves.

  • Tizzilish

    I miss being able to edit my comments. Is there an explanation for why berkeleyside eliminated that feature? I esp liked being able to change egregious , confusing typos.

  • John Holland

    Tizzilish wrote:

    I wonder why Cukor called the nonemergency line

    I don’t think he thought it was an emergency.

    but then went to the fire station for help, indicating he was concerned about waiting for a police response

    I don’t think he was concerned for his own safety. (That also explains why the call to BPD was so calm). I think he was either concerned for Dewitt (who was clearly mentally ill), or he was concerned about what else Dewitt might do in the neighborhood.

    Mr. Kukor seems intelligent enough to have sheltered in place if he thought he was in imminent personal danger. That’s also a very natural human response. It doesn’t seem rational, nor safe (nor probable) to go outside if you believe you’re in danger. It’s only horror movies where everyone splits up into the forest when there’s a real killer out there.

  • John Holland

    Terrace view wrote:

    In light of this , how can Berkeley and its police department work out a solution that will avoid tragic results in the future?

    BPD can do two things, they can either change how they classify calls, or change how they dispatch calls. For example, an trespasser would be classified as a P1 emergency. Or, BPD could insist that all Priority 2 calls be treated like an P1 emergency.

    I’m still not sure that even this would have avoided these tragic results, though. As the officer pointed out, the scenario above would have left officers responding to two calls as emergencies simultaneously.

  • John Holland

    I’m still able to edit mine.

  • bgal4

     You need to be logged into Disqus

  • http://profiles.google.com/aglimme Aaron Glimme

    Really tragic events but this is a great article, it lays out what happened very clearly. Thanks again for the fantastic journalism.

  • The Sharkey

    Even if it didn’t sound like an emergency, making the decision to not respond to it at all simply because Occupy was planning on throwing another march/tantrum is unacceptable.

    The idea that all P2 calls are going to be ignored every time there’s a protest is unsettling.

  • The Sharkey

    Or BPD could reverse their decision to ignore P2 calls during Occupy events, and respond to P2 calls during Occupy events the same way they would normally respond to them.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_UTAORC2LANQF2ONEFJYXBSITTA bingo

    thanks for the detailed follow-up, Berkeleyside.  this is really excellent reporting.

  • Ddorenz

    If the police are ranking calls according the the severity of the situation, then what is the use of calling them BEFORE a situation becomes severe such as a potential attack, break in, theft. I did not know that should I call to report a stranger in my back yard, that the police would not react to this information by showing up to protect me and my property. So I conclude that preventing crime is not the top priority of the Berkeley police; Reacting to committed crimes, crimes in progress is their priority.

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    John your an amazing person.

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    Because you’re amazing.

  • John Holland

    This is not contrary to the options I suggested. It’s changing how they choose to dispatch P2 calls: by not ignoring them during free political assembly elsewhere.

    I said they would have to change their rules for dispatch. Your suggestion is not unreasonable, nor mutually exclusive from my observation.

  • John Holland

    I’m great because the police chief is saying what I’ve been saying?

    My point wasn’t that we were both right, my point was we could both be totally wrong.

    I wasn’t posturing, Au contraire: I was second guessing the chief and myself. That’s why I’d like to hear the call.

    If your point is that I could actually be wrong, I believe we are in agreement.

  • Anonymous

    If I called 911 everytime there was a crazy person walking around my neighborhood the cops would start ignoring my calls. Unfortunately there isn’t much you can do except try to convince them to go be a problem in somebody else’s neighborhood.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Exactly.  Under what other circumstances does BPD stop P2 responses so that everyone can get in a room for a briefing?  If Occupy obtained permits for their activities, would that advance notice allow BPD to brief its officers without interrupting service to residents?  Do they pull the entire department offline for these briefings or just select teams?  If the latter, is there a way for the remaining teams to “cover” for their colleagues while the briefing goes on?

  • Johnmack16

    I am not sure if the BP were at fault in this situation, but It is my experience that city workers will never take any responsibility for any mistakes. As they have a monopoly in all that they do, we, the consumers, or taxpayers, really have no options. We can hope that our elected representatives will hold the employees accountable, but they too deny any responsibility for their performance. Watch and see how the council will all act as if the coming pension mess was both unforeseen and unavoidable.

  • The Sharkey

     And always correct.

  • Bill

    An excellent article.

  • Bill

    I agree, and, you can’t count on whether a person talking to themselves is a little “off” since half the people now talk on cell phones and you can’t tell if they’re just talking to themselves! 

  • http://twitter.com/sfbluegirl Alexa V

    They can enact it when the County will fund less restrictive alternatives.  The law is passed, but in order for it to be enacted, alternatives must be funded.  Write them to fund alternatives.  Here’s one:
    http://www.mentalhealthpeers.com/pdfs/crisisandconnection.pdf 

  • http://twitter.com/sfbluegirl Alexa V

    As he should be – he killed someone.  Let the criminal justice system handle him.  RIP Mr. Cukor.  I feel such sadness that this happened.

  • crusty

     Stop trying to blame occupy for everything going wrong in berkeley,oakland,s.f.,etc.jeez!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Shatners-Bassoon/671370595 Shatner’s Bassoon

    Priority 2 is protecting citizens from crime. Priority 1 is harassing Occupy Oakland and obstructing the right to peacefully protest. The tens of millions we spent on SWAT teams to crush the Occupy Movement last autumn could have been spent on crime prevention. 

  • Tor

    Definitely, because if it weren’t for Occupy, Berkeley PD would never have to deal with any protest marches.

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

     alleged mentally ill…lets let the court system figure out if he was mentally ill or just a family trying to save their son. just like innocent until proven guilty…sane until otherwise proven!

  • Gskalx

    Now can we focus on changing mental health services in California and Berkeley? We have so many mentally ill people in our town who cannot live a good quality life on their own but who cannot be forced to live in an institution due to Reagan era laws. In this case the young man’s parents have been struggling with this. I’ve worked with severely schizophrenic people in Berkeley and they don’t lie taking meds bc the side effects are so bad. They also tend to be too much for their families to handle. I hope this is a wake up call that we can’t throw them out on their own.

  • The Sharkey

    Did you bother to read the stories about this tragedy at all? In this case, Occupy is directly responsible for why the Police decided to stop all responses to P2 calls at the time.

  • The Sharkey

    When’s the last major non-Occupy march we had in Berkeley?
    What other currently active protest group is responsible for as much destruction and violence as Occupy?

    I agree that whatever decision they make should apply to all protest marches, but Occupy events seem to get out of hand a bit more frequently than protests from other groups.

  • bgal4

    Consider:

    California Criminal “Trespass” & “Trespassing” Laws

    Penal Code 602 PC

    California Penal Code 602 PC prohibits criminal trespass.1 In its

    simplest form, trespassing takes place when you enter someone else’s

    property without permission or a right to do so. It’s an illegal

    intrusion that interferes with the rights of another person or

    property.

    http://www.dailycal.org/2012/03/05/councilmember-calls-town-hall-meeting-in-wake-of-homicide/

    From the article:

    “Greenwood said that although trespassing is categorized as a crime in

    progress, it is not an emergency situation, so dispatchers did not

    respond to Cukor’s initial call immediately.”

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/JTNG4JTQWN2QDIRABEVTP4QHMQ will hays

    Yes, the headline says it—the police responded properly…under the circumstance. But neither the headline nor Chief Meehan addresses why this question was even raised in the first place, and that is—Why was the police department withholding police services to a certain group of citizens almost 90 minutes before the Occupy movement even entered the city? It makes no sense to limit responses because of a situation that was in downtown Oakland at 8:45 p.m., whose progress could be seen and monitored, whose speed of movement was steady and predictable, and whose potential for violence was low.

    The questions to ask Chief Meehan at the community meeting are: What time did “Priority 1 incidents only” begin? Who made the decision? What criteria were used? Is there a police department policy/procedure for such a limitation? When did the response limitation end that night?

    The police department should also consider that prioritizing incidents is only a generality, since mistakes and misunderstandings can occur on both sides of the telephone. In fact, the concept of setting priorities is only valid when there are many competing incidents for police dispatch. When there are no Priority 1 incidents pending, then Priority 2 incidents are actually the top priority—exactly the situation in the Cukor incident. Likewise, the permitted 20-minute limit on waiting is also valid only when there are so many incidents that immediate dispatch is not possible. That apparently wasn’t the case here, either.

    Please tell me that the next urgent incident in Berkeley won’t be delayed because the police are “reconfiguring” their staffing, especially in anticipation of something that is not occurring for 90 minutes. The police should only be absent because they are physically handling something more urgent.

  • bgal4

    To understand how BPD dispatches officers consider that TWO officers are always sent to known or unknown trouble calls. The primary officer and their back-up officer is always a starting point. They hold these calls until they can scrape together a two officer response. The “Third Officer” practice is not a formalized procedure. It’s is commonly initiated by independent judgment of the Dispatchers or assigned officers.

  • Sam

    Some want to blame the police for this tragedy, some want to blame the Occupy demonstration.  The real person responsible for this tragedy is Ronald Reagan.  The Reagan administration ended the institutionalization of the severely mentally ill with the promise that there would be community resources to take up the slack.  But outside of a very few places, the community-based replacements were never created or funded.  Many of the homeless like Dewitt have major psychological problems.  If these people are not helped and put in a situation that keeps them and us safe, more tragedies like the Cukor murder will happen again no matter what the police do and no matter what demonstrations are happening or not happening.

  • Fthepo

    You police are scum. Liars. Teachers lose their jobs while you put everyone in jail. You should be ashamed.