At 12:45 a.m., police chief demands reporter make changes

A reporter interviews Chief Michael Meehan before Thursday’s community meeting on the murder of Peter Cukor. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Update 2:30 pm. City officials respond to incident:

Statement from Interim City Manager Christine Daniel:

I take this situation very seriously. We understand and appreciate the depth of response to this incident.  The value of the free press in our society is fundamental to who we are as a people. Our organization deeply values our relationship with the media, and individual reporters, and we know that our community depends on the media for information about important events in Berkeley.

The Police Chief has apologized directly to the reporter involved and expressed his sincere regret for his actions on Thursday night.  There was no justification for contacting the reporter in this way and the Chief understands that the more appropriate response to his concerns about inaccurate statements in the article should have been to wait until the following day and make contact by phone or email. The Chief has acknowledged his lapse in judgment and assured me that nothing like this will happen again.

The Berkeley Police Department looks forward to focusing its efforts moving forward on restoring the trust of the press and ensuring that the media has more timely and accurate information about events in Berkeley.  To facilitate that, the Chief is planning an independent review of the Department’s policies and practices regarding timely releases of information.  When that review is completed, a report will be provided to the City Council and the community.

Statement from Police Chief Michael K. Meehan

I sincerely apologize for my actions on Thursday night.  The Berkeley Police Department has a good, productive working relationship with the Oakland Tribune and its reporters. I have apologized to the reporter personally and I take full responsibility for this error in judgment. I was frustrated with the Department’s ability to get out timely information, but that is no excuse.  My actions do not reflect the values of the Berkeley Police Department. I deeply appreciate the importance of an independent and thoroughly informed media, and how they assist us in making our community aware of important events and information.  I am committed to ensuring that the Police Department continues to have a trusting and professional working relationship with the press and to make sure that happens, I am planning for an independent review of the Department’s policies and practices regarding release of information to the media.

Original story: Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan sent his public information officer to an Oakland Tribune reporter’s house in the middle of the night on Friday to push for changes in a story that Meehan thought was inaccurate.

Chief Meehan then twice called the reporter, Doug Oakley, and sent him numerous follow up emails urging him to alter wording in the story about a community meeting called to examine Berkeley police response to the Feb. 18. murder of Peter Cukor.

The 12:45 am visit by Sgt. Mary Kusmiss on March 9 and subsequent police demands have left Oakley disturbed and shaken.

“I haven’t slept in 24 hours,” said Oakley, who lives in Berkeley and has written about the city for six years. “It was really intimidating.”

Chief Meehan could not be reached for comment Saturday. He told other reporters at the Oakland Tribune that he “could have done better.”

“I would say it was an overzealous attempt to make sure that accurate information is put out,” Meehan told reporters Kristin Bender and Thomas Peele. “I did not mean to upset (Oakley) or his family last night; it was late, (I was) tired, too. I don’t dispute that it could be perceived badly.”

City councilmember Laurie Capitelli, who, along with councilmember Susan Wengraf, convened the Thursday meeting at the Northbrae Community Church to discuss the slaying of Cukor, said Chief Meehan’s actions seem out of line.

“If the facts are how they appear, it is inappropriate and the chief is overreacting,” said Capitelli. “The chief is hyper-sensitive to errors made in the papers early on, the stories about the homicide …. Sending Mary to somebody’s front door after midnight is inappropriate.”

Capitelli said at this point he does not have any plans to ask Meehan’s boss, Interim City Manager Christine Daniel, to look into the matter.

Jim Ewert, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publisher’s Association, told the Tribune that Meehan’s actions were “despicable, totally despicable. It’s the most intimidating type of (censorship) possible because the person trying to exercise it carries a gun.”

“This was an official act and it was grossly improper and it calls into question (Meehan’s) judgement and his understanding of the role of police in society,” said Peter Sussman, a former president of the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists who has long been involved with First Amendment issues. “It is a serious infraction of privacy, if nothing else. When it’s done under the cover of authority it does become state intimidation.”

Oaklant Tribune reporter Doug Oakley

In the community meeting, Chief Meehan complained about inaccurate media reports about the killing, particularly the question of whether a Berkeley police officer offered to go to the Cukor’s house before the 911 call came in, but was told not to, and whether police delayed a response because officers were focusing on an Occupy march.

Chief Meehan told the 200 people assembled at the church that he was to blame for not getting information out quickly enough to the community.

Oakley initially interpreted this as an apology for the way Berkeley police responded to the Cukor situation, he said. His story featured this apology prominently.

“I went to the meeting,” said Oakley. “I filed a story about 11 o’clock. The editor put it online. I went to bed. The next thing I know my wife is talking to me. I am half-asleep. She’s saying the Berkeley police are here. I say ‘what?’ At first I thought something really bad was happening or they were coming for me, like I was going to be arrested.’”

Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, whom Oakley knows well from his time at the Tribune, was standing at the door.

“She didn’t want to be here at all,” said Oakley. “She was really apologetic. She was told to go.”

Sgt. Kusmiss explained that Chief Meehan had seen Oakley’s story and thought he had gotten it wrong. Chief Meehan had apologized for not communicating well with the citizenry, but had not apologized for the police response, she told Oakley.

Chief Meehan had sent her because he could not get through to Oakley by email or cell phone, Sgt. Kusmiss told Oakley. The chief felt he could not wait until morning to get the mistake corrected because the Oakland Tribune has hundreds of thousands of readers, said Sgt. Kusmiss. Chief Meehan did not want bad information out there.

Oakley agreed to make the changes, but told Sgt. Kusmiss it could not happen until around 7 am when there was someone at the Tribune to do it, he said.

“At the moment I felt ‘I got something wrong in a really big story and I have to change it.’”

Sgt. Kusmiss left, but, starting at around 7:00 am, Chief Meehan continued to press for more changes to the story, said Oakley. He asked for a change to the headline and disputed another section in the story. Oakley declined to make any other changes, he said. But the chief’s persistence angered — and frightened — him.

“He doesn’t know when to stop,” said Oakley. “We both have a lot of power as a journalist and as police chief. We both have to respect that power but I think he really abused it.”

“What does that mean if the chief can send someone over to my house in the middle of the night?” said Oakley. “Who do you call when the police are after you?”

Related:
Community gathers in wake of murder: quizzes Berkeley police [03.09.12]

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  • Frank Ney

     By not stomping on this crap hard when it happens is how we end up living in a gulag.

  • Capital_7

    Since the Chief knew what he was doing, and it took some time to decide to harass the reporter, and even more time to send someone out, etc, this was a premeditated attempt to bully the press.  The Chief should be removed and punished by the appropriate authorities.  

  • Heather_W_62

    If anyone’s interested, here’s an article by Henry Lee from the Chron.
    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/03/11/BANH1NJ73K.DTL&tsp=1 

  • Mike Farrell

    Meehan’s big mistake was to allow a white guy in the hills to be murdered. Otherwise no story at all.

  • Zelda Bronstein

    Tomorrow (Monday) at 5:30 pm, the Berkeley City Council is having a special meeting to discuss personnel matters, including labor negotiations with Chief Meehan, among others. The meeting itself is closed to the public, but before the council goes into closed session, there’s an opportunity for public comment–only on items on the agenda. Given that both personnel matters and Meehan’s name are both on the agenda for the closed session, it seems to me that people wanting to comment on the Chief’s performance should be allowed to speak. 

  • Mekong66

    another cop that belongs in jail…..  neither the chief nor the people who keep him on the job belong in office.

  • BHills

    The Chief of Police has been put under the bus by panic, by the fact that an upstanding member of our community is dead in the most tragic of circumstances, by the fact that the fire chief has remained silent about how our fire stations can be staffed at all times, by the fact that justice in the form of vengeance is unlike to be meted out to the suspect, by the search for somebody to blame for the tragedy, by misleading press reports, by Occupy’s incessant occupation of the story, by the bungling of Susan Wengraf and Laurie Capitelli, and now by the union representing the force he commands. 

    All the while, very few people are speaking up for him and the good job that the police and other first responders do for our city.  Some support for the police would have been voiced on Thursday night but those of us who play by the rules were kept from voicing our opinions (only written questions were allowed) while those willing to ignore the rules screamed and shouted.  As a result, those who attended the meeting were characterized as angry, rowdy and unruly when most of us were not.  And all the while, our venerable Mayor remains silent.

    How do you think you would stand up to these circumstances?

  • BHills

    I too was at the meeting.  The version of the story that is on the Tribune web site accurately reflects what the Chief said.  It is revised which leads me to conclude that the original version contained errors.

  • iicisco

    I’d say this is police intimidation or border line for that matter. But at the same time, PD is finally becoming more proactive-nice job. I don’t believe Kusmiss carries a gun dsd510… “Who do you call when the police are after you?” Why the national guard. 

  • iicisco

    Talk about a radical. Last 5 sentences were unnecessary.

  • iicisco

    Are you implying BPD should be shut down and ALCO (Alameda County Sheriff’s Dept) take over. If so then this is minor compared to the problems Berkeley would face if that were to happen. I’ve never seen a police agency like alco **** so bad except for maybe Oakland. Let’s see here genius if we the public, keep Meehan in office then I guess all 121,000+ residents of Berkeley should go wait in the PSB lobby for booking on suspicion of ca pen 26

  • iicisco

    How very true!

  • iicisco

    What’s this you just stated “I don’t say this because I dislike cops- I say it because….” Well you just dug yourself a nice hole on the farm located in biased-ville California. Say how’s the weather down there? Off the record there is a growing coloration between people who have had bad experiences with the police weather it be indirectly or directly and their public out take on them. So Chuck, do you think every cop is a fat, ugly pig. Do they all sit in “their” cars eating glaze donuts while downing there dunkin’ donuts coffee? Do they target you, did the take something from you? Or my personal favorite, did they delay you in getting somewhere that wasn’t urgent anyway. Did you try to blow smoke over some pesky little issue that you found unfair but turned out you remained at fault anyway? Please do enlighten us Mr. Farley 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kara-Mehmet/1512347440 Kara Mehmet

    Hey! Anything is OK in Liberal-Land. Welcome aboard!!!

  • Jeremiah Johnson

    A real man, having proven himself unfit to serve the public and disgraced his position, would resign with whatever dignity he can scrounge together.

    What happened to real men in this country?

  • No

    to live in a democracy?

  • Hatch821

    I’m trying to persuade my friends that the police are not really pus-filled worms.

  • The Sharkey

    Wouldn’t 12:45AM be just before the paper was going to press?

    Does anyone know if the reason behind the late-night house call was that the Chief read a pre-press/online version of the story and was then trying to get the reporter to make a change before the story went to print?

  • http://berkeleyside.com Tracey Taylor

    Chief Meehan read the story on The Tribune’s website, according to the original story in The Tribune: http://www.mercurynews.com/twitter/ci_20143268/berkeley-police-chiefs-decision-send-sergeant-reporters-home

  • Bruce Love

    The chief and Oakley gave accounts to KTVU.   They don’t support your hypothesis.

    Meehan, after reporting that the meeting had been emotionally charged:  “I had been dealing with this fairly emotional event that we had. [....]  Yeah, I’m kind of a go-go person.  So, here I am working, and I see this article come out late at night after 11, 11:20, something like that, and I think ‘Hey, uh, you know I’m going to deal with it right now.’ [....]  The reasons really don’t matter.   I put him in an awkward position.  I shouldn’t have done it.”

    Oakley: “The chief wanted changes made, right then and there at 1 o’clock in the morning.   I said no, I can’t do it.  [.... by the next morning, when Meehan is demanding further changes ....]  It seems like he got his foot in the door and wanted more changes.  And that’s when I was like  `something’s wrong here.’”

    Meehan: “I really feel badly because my heart and my head — that’s not where I was going with this — and I realize that it could be perceived that way and I really feel badly about that and I can tell you it won’t happen again.”

  • Barcook246

    First they came for Rush….

  • The Sharkey

    Completely uncalled for, and a clear violation of the Berkeleyside posting guidelines.

  • The Sharkey

    How does that not support my hypothesis?
    Publication online tends to precede publication in print.

    If Oakley’s writings don’t usually get published in the print version of the Tribune then this hypothesis would be obviously be invalid, but Meehan not mentioning the print deadline doesn’t mean he wasn’t thinking about it.

  • The Sharkey

     Oh boy! More anti-Police comments from throwaway accounts.

  • The Sharkey

    I’m trying to persuade my friends that Occupy protesters aren’t just good-for-nothing bums.

  • Bruce Love

    Was he thinking about it the next morning?  Was concern regarding the print edition reflected in Kusmiss’ message from the chief?  Not even the chief himself is proffering up the excuse you are making on his behalf.

  • The Sharkey

    A Police Sergeant who was wearing civilian clothes, had just seen the reporter at a meeting a couple hours ago, had a working relationship with the reporter, and who was making requests about changing an inaccurate quote in a story you had published in the last hour or so.

  • The Sharkey

    Seems like a pretty clear case of a reporter taking a dumb decision made by local law enforcement and trying to sensationalize it as much as possible.

    He did a great job of it, too. His frenzied display of dismay (SHOCK! HORROR!) got him the headline on Friday I think.

  • The Sharkey

    So anyone who tries to request a correction from a reporter is a censor now?

    Sheesh.

  • The Sharkey

    Asking for a correction in a story is not “an unreasonable contact by the Government attempting to influence the reporter.”
    There was no threat of retaliation, and reporter was still free to say “No.”

    Or do you think that members of the press should be able to simply say whatever they want, and any officials who they might “misquote” should be unable to contact them to request corrections?

    What Meehan did was unquestionably thoughtless, but a “slippery slope to loss of freedom?” No.

  • The Sharkey

    Wow, some stories in Berkeley really bring out the wingnuts.

  • ChuckFarley

    It’s hard to have a written exchange with someone who can’t understand a simple sentence. Try reading that sentence again, really slowly, and see if it makes more sense to you… or, get a friend to read it out loud for you, maybe that would help.

  • The Sharkey

    Oh, so the fact that he hasn’t explicitly mentioned it means that it clearly must *not* have thought of it?

    That sounds an awful lot like the kind of yellow journalism tactic used by outlets like FOX News.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1411076396 Jeff Vandenberg

    What a pig.

  • ChurchSox

    I think the regulations ought to demand that if a chief of police even suggests such a thing, it should be the duty of the watch commander to relieve him of command, place him respectfully in restraints and have him taken away for observation.
    I’m willing to listen to reason, but that’s my starting position.

  • wrecktafire

     The Chief of Police is suffering the consequences of a lapse in judgement that took place in the midst of some very difficult circumstances, as you point out.  I am not saying he should be fired or sued, at this point.

    I AM saying he has some explaining to do, and the community needs some reassurance that his attempt to write his own version of the news will not be happening again.  If he cannot provide such assurances, he should be relieved.

  • The Sharkey

    Well, they don’t.

    Good trolling though. 10/10 for content, style, and flair!

  • BHills

    Did this actually take place?

  • Bruce Love

    Yes, what happened with this.  The silence from city hall so far is deafening.

  • Anonymous

     Typical authoritarian reply. Just like the Freeper Trolls of old.

  • Scottyduck

    When your up reading, past midnight, knocking back a little scotch. the power to reach out can only hurt you.

  • Scottyduck

    Thank God your mindset is more at home in Nazi Germany c.1940

  • Gpl43

    cops suck,they think there gods dont neen them go back to the wild west fend for you self we would be safer

  • bh

     Wow.  Better luck next time.  And bring a dictionary.