An estimated 150-200 people turned out on Thursday evening to Northbrae Community Church on The Alameda in north Berkeley to ask the Berkeley Police Department about their response to the Feb. 18 murder of Park Hills resident Peter Cukor.
There was a palpable sense of anxiety in the room as the meeting got under way and a significant media presence, with several TV crews as well as print and digital journalists in attendance.
When Councilmember Susan Wengraf opened by saying questions would be taken on written cards, there were shouts of dismay and hostile accusations leveled by several members of the audience.
However, once the meeting progressed, the mood became calmer and there were even moments of levity. Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan received several rounds of applause from an audience that generally skewed towards the over-50s.
Councilmember Wengraf, who called the meeting, was joined on the platform by Councilmember Laurie Capitelli, Chief Meehan, BPD Supervising Dispatcher Alan Lauborough and BPD Beat Coordinator Officer Byron White.
Chief Meehan fielded the lion’s share of the questions. He provided a timeline of the events of the night of Feb. 18 in terms of when the two calls about the incident came in and how they were handled, and he addressed questions that have been raised about the police’s decision to respond to emergency calls only on a night when an Occupy “Fuck The Police” march was scheduled to come into Berkeley from Oakland.
Many of the questions were specific ones relating to the Feb. 18 homicide, but as the evening wore on — the meeting began at 7:30pm and ended at around 9:30pm — the panel was asked to address more general questions about crime in Berkeley. A psychiatrist in the audience, Alan Cohen, offered to answer some particular questions about the handling of people with mental illnesses. The suspect in the murder case, Daniel Jordan DeWitt, is alleged to be a paranoid schizophrenic.
The majority of the information shared by Meehan was covered by Berkeleyside in our sit-down interview with the BPD. He did, however, mention that DeWitt had told the police that he had walked to the site of the murder.
Councilmember Wengraf, responding to a question from the audience, said there was a household on Fairlawn Drive in the Berkeley hills connected to a DeWitt family, but, she said, they were not related to the family of the murder suspect.
Meehan said reports that the police were blaming the Occupy march for their decision not to respond to the first call from the Cukor household were false. And, later, he said BPD had been told that protesters might try to “occupy” the Berkeley Police station on the night of Feb. 18.
Zachary Running Wolf, who was in the audience and is running for mayor in the next Berkeley election, was part the Occupy march on the night of Feb. 18. He said there was no plot to take over police station. “We stated we were going to the I-House. It was unbelievable he said that.”
It was explained several times that Fire Station 7, which is across the street from the Cukor household on Park Gate, and where Peter Cukor is believed to have gone looking for help, was empty on the night of the homicide because the crew were handling a house fire call at 646 Vincente Avenue.
Chief Meehan stressed that the police department had been remiss in not releasing information quickly, which had led to it “getting behind the media curve”.
He said certain media reports had been inaccurate and had unnecessarily “increased the fear in the community”. “It is our job to inform you, not your job to dig it out of us,” he said.
After the meeting, Jan Collins, who lives on San Benito near Spruce, said: “I’m of course concerned about the issue of safety and the question of what would happen if I called the police. They really did answer that question. Meehan seems to have an awful lot of integrity.”
Shirley Dean, the former Mayor of Berkeley, was at the meeting. She said not all of her questions had been answered, in particular those about the number of officers monitoring the Occupy march. Speaking of the homicide, she said: “It was a perfect storm. It was clear that we really have to expect something like this could happen at any time. We need to be vigilant.”
Bob Flasher, who lives near Grizzly Peak, said: “I came here because I am the head of neighborhood watch at Grizzly Peak where the Cukors lived. [BPD] is a very smart, thoughtful and professional department. Obviously Chief Meehan has his act together and is doing everything possible to make [Berkeley] safer.”
Live tweets by Berkeleyside from the March 8 community meeting [03.08.12]
Berkeley police: We responded properly to Cukor’s murder [03.02.12]
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]