Questions remain about Berkeley police chief’s actions

Chief Michael Meehan, BPD Supervising Dispatcher Alan Lauborough and BPD Beat Coordinator Byron White at community meeting on Cukor incident. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Update 2:10 pm: Statement from Berkeley Police Association added below.

A contrite Berkeley police chief spent Saturday afternoon fielding calls from the media to explain why he ordered a sergeant to go the house of a reporter at 12:45 a.m. on Friday to ask for changes in an article the chief thought was inaccurate.

Chief Michael Meehan profusely apologized for his actions, but declined to provide specifics about the incident.

“I was in the wrong,” Chief Meehan said. “It could have, and should have waited until the morning. It was a significant error of judgment on my part.”

To regain the trust of the press, Chief Meehan will order “an independent review of the Department’s policies and practices regarding release of information to the media,” he said in a statement. He wants the Berkeley Police Department to look at the best media policies of other police departments around the country and adopt them.

There are no indications that Chief Meehan’s boss, Interim City Manager Christine Daniel, intends to review Chief Meehan’s actions, despite the media storm that has descended on Berkeley – which, ironically, is known as the home of the Free Speech Movement.

“The Police Chief has apologized directly to the reporter involved and expressed his sincere regret for his actions on Thursday night…. The Chief has acknowledged his lapse in judgment and assured me that nothing like this will happen again,” Daniel said in a statement.

Chief Meehan said he does not know if his job is in jeopardy. Dozens of commentators on Berkeleyside have called for Chief Meehan’s resignation.

“It is not my decision,” he said. “My commitment to this community is deep. My commitment to the department is deep. As a human being I will certainly make mistakes – and this was not a small one – but I will admit to my mistakes.”

The Berkeley Police Association, which represents about 160 officers up to the rank of captain, released a statement Sunday afternoon about the incident.

“We, the members of the Berkeley Police Association, stand with our community and share in their concerns about the appearance and correctness of the Chief’s orders, and are gravely concerned about the impact his actions will have on our ability to maintain the vital trust of the community we serve. We are committed to providing the best possible service to the community, and protecting the Constitutional rights of the citizens of Berkeley to whom we ultimately answer. We do not believe that the actions taken by Chief Meehan represent the will, spirit, or sentiment of the membership of the Berkeley Police Association.”

It is ironic that Chief Meehan is facing so much negative scrutiny only days after he delivered a report to the City Council showing a big decrease in violent crime and hours after he assuaged a crowd that had gathered Thursday at the Northbrae Community Church to get answers on why Peter Cukor, a 67-year old hills resident, was murdered on Feb. 18. The beginning of the meeting was tense, but when it ended an hour an a half later, most of those who attended were satisfied with Chief Meehan’s explanation of the police response and convinced he was trying to improve the police department.

It was the story that Oakland Tribune reporter Doug Oakley wrote about the meeting that started this chain of events. Oakley interpreted Chief Meehan’s remarks as an apology for the way Berkeley police had responded to the crime.

When Chief Meehan read the Tribune story online after 11 pm, he got upset. He thought the article was inaccurate because he had apologized for how the police got out information about the murder, not the way the department responded. Meehan emailed and called Oakley to ask for a correction, but could not reach him.

Sgt. Mary Kusmiss. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Chief Meehan then ordered Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, the department’s public information officer, to go Oakley’s home. She knocked on the door at 12:45 am, waking up Oakley and his wife. Oakley agreed to the changes, but explained that they needed to wait until the morning when a Tribune editor came on duty.

At 7 am, Chief Meehan called Oakley again, saying he had not seen a new version of the story online yet, said Oakley. The chief kept pressing Oakley for more changes in phone calls and emails that morning, leading Oakley to feel “intimidated.”

When other reporters from the Oakland Tribune started to call the police department later that morning, Chief Meehan realized his error, he said. He informed Daniel and other city officials some time on Friday of his actions, he said. The Tribune article about the incident went online around 9 pm.

Numerous questions remain about the incident, and Meehan declined to talk about them, or could not answer them on Saturday afternoon. They include:

1) How did Sgt. Mary Kusmiss obtain Oakley’s home address? While there are public methods available to find addresses – and Oakley has said he is listed in the phone book – police often use DMV records to find addresses. But DMV records can only be used for legitimate police needs. Chief Meehan said he assumed that Sgt. Kusmiss knew where Oakley lived, since he knows where the reporter lives.

2) Did Sgt. Kusmiss, the police department’s public information officer, advise her boss away from this course of action? Chief Meehan declined to discuss their conversations. “Mary was doing what  I asked her to do,” he said. “But it was late and I don’t remember the specific wording at all. It was a fairly quick call.”

3) Was it a proper use of police funds to send Sgt. Kusmiss out on the street at 12:45 am? Sgt. Kusmiss’s hours are normally 9 am to 7 pm, although she is often called in on off hours during high profile crimes. Chief Meehan said he had assumed Sgt. Kusmiss was at home around midnight on March 8, when he first started to look for her to get Oakley’s phone number. But when he called her cell phone, he found her still at police headquarters, he said.

4) Was Sgt. Kusmiss wearing a police uniform when she came to Oakley’s door? Was she armed? Chief Meehan did not know the answer to this question, although Sgt. Kusmiss does not usually wear a uniform, he said. She mostly dresses in civilian clothes and wears a small police badge on her lapel or sweater.

“I wish I would have given in more thought that evening,” said Chief Meehan. “I tend to be a go-go person. I should have relaxed, taken a deep breath, and said this should wait until the next morning… I am completely and totally in the wrong.”

Related:
At 12:45 am police chief demands reporter make changes [03.10.12]
Community gathers in wake of murder: quizzes Berkeley police [03.09.12]

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  • Haselstein

    This is a tempest in a teapot. If you are looking for someone to blame, let’s look at the judge who did not hospitalize Mr. DeWitt over the objections of the family and DeWitt’s physician. And also the state defunding of mental health services. 

  • EBGuy

     Laura (or anyone else),  If you still have the original (unchanged) story in your computer cache, could you post.  I’m about ready to offer a bounty to see what irked the (tired) chief.  My hope for 21st century reporting is that news reports would actually link the sources, instead of trying to generate hype.
    And, as always, thanks for sharing.  I had been a bit puzzled by your response to this situation and have better clarity on where you’re coming from, and the bigger issues you would like to see addressed.

  • EBGuy

    Which way are the political winds blowing?

  • berkeleykev

     The review of best practices for releasing information is good and important, but is more related to what the chief apologized for on Thursday night at the meeting. 

    He took responsibility for the department’s role in the confusion over the response to the original incident, which showed a lot of class, considering how ignorant many people have been (and continue to be) regarding the original non-emergency call and BPD’s initial lack of response. 

    For him to step up and say BPD has a role in the confusion is commendable, especially because there has been a fair bit of sensationalist reporting and pandering.  I found myself correcting people just two days ago on SFGate who were STILL posting that “BPD failed to respond to a 911 call”.  If I as a simple citizen am losing my patience with the know-nothings out there, I can understand the chief’s frustration with the inaccurate portrayal of BPD and the reactions it is causing in the general populace.  So, again, for him to take responsibility for any of that confusion is classy and commendable, to say the least.  I think he would have had a point if he publicly complained about the slant of much of the coverage, but he didn’t (publicly).  And, to review the best practices for releasing info is a great idea.

    *However*

    That has absolutely nothing to do with the issue of sending a cop to a reporter’s house at 12:45 a.m. to demand a change to a story. 

    I don’t care if Oakley wrote that Meehan himself had killed Mr. Cukor after breaking Charles Manson out of prison for a gay sex and meth binge; a police chief does not send a cop to a reporter’s home at 12:45 a.m. to demand a change to a story.  Period.  There is no need to review other departments’ best practices to understand that.  The chief himself seems to understand it, he has apologized specifically and (to my mind) sincerely.  The independent review you wrote of is unrelated.

    He needs to make amends for it, not simply apologize and say it won’t happen again.  The things you posted are not in any way concrete steps to undo the harm he caused.  I hope he will indeed take concrete steps, because I think BPD has been generally excellent under his command, and because I feel for him as a person.  But it will take much, much more than what has been offered thus far.

  • Matt Parker

    I have been fairly impressed with the Berkeley Police as they have to thread the needle in this crazy town of:
    -Protecting life and property
    -Appearing subservient to a completely incompetent governance board
    -Getting standard police work down in an “anti-rule of law” town

    One screw up, like the hillside incident, and the City acts as if the police did the crime. If they did NOT confront the loony in the first place he would still be alive. The man was clearly on the property and it’s a law enforcement job-the homeowner should have stayed inside or brought a baseball bat with him.

    So, in my view,  the homeowner and the police and the murderer all have a part in the event.

    Getting any law enforcement job done in this city is a nightmare. Its the highest theft City in California from what I have heard. The Police could be enforcing and patrolling but they are too bust babysitting UC overflow crime and babysitting paranoid citizen task forces to get the JOB DONE.

    Whenever I call 911 the police come immediately. I report suspicious activity and never get any flack for doing it. Frankly the homeowner messed up here more than the police. Why confront the person-he was just asking for it…

  • Bruce Love

    I have been fairly impressed with the Berkeley Police [….]

    Me too.  And many of us.  And they seem to have made a rather strong, collective statement against the current Chief.

  • bgal4

     Thanks EBguy,

    read Henry Lee in the Chronicle starting back with the release of the dispatch tapes.

    Oakley is second to Lee to be blamed (unwarranted)  by Meehan.

    I did not save Oakley story, but I did speak to several people who attended the meeting who also heard the Chief make a general apology that anyone would about the murder of another human being.  Meehan more specific apology was in response to why he blamed media for asking tough questions about staffing that night and how the call was handled from the start.  There lies the rub, he is apologizing for losing control of the messaging.

    This is not a small matter. The conditions that existed when the call came in happen lots.

    Again Lee’s reporting lies out several conflicts that B-side and even the Trib have not defined.

    Berkeley is so damn provincial……..

    Coffee ebguy ?

  • BHills

    Please share some suggestions of actions that would satisfy your sense that he needs to make amends to the reporter.  Also, do you have the same feeling about the reported who appears to have badly botched the story?

  • BHills

    Did you draw the inference that the Chief referred to published information rather what might be termed ‘intelligence?’

  • berkeleykev

     I agree with most of what you’re saying, except that if you’ve been following the comments on this or other message boards, many Berkeleyans (including) myself have been defending (and commending) BPD all along, before and since Mr. Cukor’s murder, so I think your defense of their handling of that case is completely unnecessary. 

    The issue in question is not the handling of the murder.  The issue is that the chief sent a cop to a journalist’s home at 12:45 a.m. to demand changes to a story.

  • Heather_W_62

    Irisandjules, as many times as I have posted/responded on ths topc in the last couple days, you have, quite remarkably, said what I’m thinking/feeling right now and quite succinctly. Thank you. 

    There’s been a lot wild speculation — about Meehan’s state of mind in his response, and his overall style of leadership, etcetera. Frankly, not one of us bandying our ideas and opinions back and forth have any idea what his motivation really was, why he acted in what seems such an impulsive and punitive way, nor what was the catalyst. 

    I, for one, am willing to allow that he should be reviewed and sanctioned for his action, but do not support his losing his job. And frankly, I don’t care what the Union has to say about it.  

  • Heather_W_62

    No, I don’t think that’s what Irishandjules were saying, Laura. I think that there’s wild speculation going around, a lot of “hotheaded” initial reactions, and I agree with you that we do need to to consider what this ENTIRE sequence of events means to our city and what is lacking in our Police Department. We’ve discussed this, and I think there’s room for further discussion about the people Meehan answers to, the lack of staffing and resources within the department and our (The People’s) expectations that they will be all things in all ways (having our cake and eating it too so to speak), but I think that’s a greater discussion that bears further discussion and probing. This is much more complicated than the Police Chief making a terrible decision. We know this. 

    As you once said to me; once you open your eyes, you cannot close them again.  

  • Heather_W_62

    I “liked” that, but it’s unfair. I’ve been left shaking with rage, disbelief, fear of confrontation (and I’m a confrontational fighter), but I have PTSD. Perhaps Doug does as well… we don’t know. He may well have felt a fight or flight response, that’s not for us to judge. 

  • berkeleykev

     I have suggested multiple times that he should take some unpaid time off (2 weeks?) specifically to study first amendment issues.

    Perhaps he could study the specific history of police influence/pressure on journalists, from the extreme to the subtle and then communicate what he learned, maybe even in an interview with Mr. Oakley.  And perhaps then he could write up some specific guidelines for police interaction with journalists when said journalists (either intentionally or unintentionally) distort the truth.  (Not that anyone should need written guidelines to tell them not to send a cop to a journalist’s home at 12:45 a.m.).

    If the Police union will not allow him to take unpaid leave (I don’t know how they view such things, it may be banned in their collective bargaining agreement), then perhaps he could donate an amount of money equivalent to his salary for those two-weeks to the ACLU or to a Journalists’ right organization of Mr. Oakley’s choosing.  Or perhaps he could use his paid vacation/sick/personal days for that period.

    Frankly I imagine the poor guy could use a break right now anyway,

    And he needs to specifically address to the city that he understands how he abused the city’s most cherished ideal, free speech and the first amendment, and how he intends to make that right (see points above).

  • berkeleykev

     As far as the reporter who initially botched the story, (and for that matter all the other reporters who have used slanted coverage to generate controversy and page views and clicks), journalists are not public employees.  I have been gravely disappointed with the fourth estate for a long time.  I routinely chastise them and point out their inaccuracies and biases in comment sections, you can peruse my commentary on SFGate sometime if you like. 

    I made specific criticisms of the Chronicle’s headline and synopsis of the Trib story on Friday morning on SFGate before that story was pulled.  (The linked Trib story had been changed by then, but the Chron’s headline still said that the chief had apologized for BPD’s response to the calls for service- I strongly criticized the coverage, and corrected the comments being made.  In essence, I was making the corrections the chief had asked for, as a private citizen.)

    But there is absolutely no comparison between the responsibilities of a police chief and a reporter.  No comparison at all. 

  • Heather_W_62

    I have been curious about this reduction in crime. Frankly, there was a reducton in violent crime (apparently) between 2010 and 2011. then, in the first 3 months of 2012, we have several shootings and a couple murders, which just about doubles everything from 2011. 

    Then I asked myself, as I’ve been trying to give Meehan credit plausible credt for concrete actions and I can think of only one thing: He finally spoke up about the forces frustrations in working with a non-compliant BUSD. 

    That’s it. That’s all I can come up. He’s a nice guy in person, his wife is nice and he’s personable. But what has he done that can top this terrible error on his part?

  • bgal4

    See Editorial in the Trib linked below:

    This is the only issue residents should be concerned about. Period!!

    http://www.insidebayarea.com/oakland-tribune/ci_20158941/tammerlin-drummond-berkeley-police-chiefs-astounding-lapse-judgment

    Here’s what Berkeley residents and their elected officials ought to be asking:How
    is it that the police department could not muster an officer to send in
    response to Peter Cukor’s call about a trespasser on his property?And yet the city’s top cop had no problem rousting a sergeant to go to a reporter’s house in the middle of the night.

  • Heather_W_62

    “Why confront the person-he was just asking for it…” You know, yesterday (or the day before), I was saying more or less the same thing. but the more I read and take in this entire series of events, the more I’m taking a different stance: 

    I agree that Mr. Cukor made a grave error, and that error in judgment cost him his life – there’s no do-overs for Mr. Cukor, but you see, there is a “do over” for the police department. They could revamp their 3-officer policy in responding to such a call, having learned from this horrendous incident. And still, the BPD’s error cost Mr. Cukor his life; he didn’t do it to himself, not really. 

    The one available officer who offered to go was told to stand down, why? I speculate it is because there wasn’t another car available to attend the call with him.  So Mr, Cukor was supposed to sit and wait – with a crazy guy in his garage and around his house. Obviously, what he should have done was what he didn’t do, just like BPD should have responded, but they didn’t. The circle is complete; Cukor did what he shouldn’t have and died, BPD didn’t do what they should have, and Cukor died. 

    But isn’t there some irony that it is easy for the Police Chief to send Sgt. Kusmiss on a midnight call on his business? 

  • Heather_W_62

    Let me clarify, since I am the one who reacted to her overtime. I made a mistake – that night was the night of the meeting — she was almost certainly talking with media, giving statements and probably prepping for whatever the backlash was gong to be the following day. There is no question in my mind that she was legitimately in “over-time”.   My time-line was uncertain when I posted, but I didn’t want to remove the post. FYI, a later post shows that she made over $30,000 in overtime last year. 

  • BHills

    Unfortunately, neither Susan Wengraf nor Laurie Capitelli was interested in this suggestion.   Nor did Wengraf invite the fire chief.

    If this idea is going to be considered, we who live in Berkeley are going to have to pursue it ourselves rather than have our elected representatives do the required work.

  • BHills

    Thanks for this response.

  • bgal4

    Wow, just wow.  

    Reread you second paragraph, connect the dots.

  • berkeleykev

     ???  “Connect the dots” ???

    The issue now is not the handling of the murder, the non-emergency call, the “F*** the police” march, etc. etc.  That WAS the issue in other threads, and may still BE the issue in other threads and discussions, but that is not the issue that the above story we are all responding to here presents. 

    The first paragraph of the story pretty much lays it out: “A contrite Berkeley police chief spent Saturday afternoon fielding calls from the media to explain why he ordered a sergeant to go the house of a reporter at 12:45 am on Friday to ask for changes in an article the chief thought was inaccurate.”

    To defend the chief or BPD for the initial dispatch response is a straw man.  It has nothing to do with one’s outrage or lack thereof regarding the chief sending a cop to a reporter’s home at 12:45 a.m. to demand a change to a story. 

    I personally have defended the initial response many times, but that is neither here nor there when it comes to the current controversy.

  • view_t_40

    If Meehan was not a white male he would have already been asked to resign. He ordered Sgt. Mary Kusmiss to do what he was afraid to do himself.  My guess, knowing what he ordered the Sgt. to do was wrong.  His only concern was his image.  Clearly not the person for the job, that is as clear as it gets.  Fire him and move onto a better suited Chief.  It is not a difficult decision.  If he does not resign I lose faith in BPD    

  • berkeleykev

     You’re quite welcome.  I appreciate the genuine interest in dialogue that (for the most part) exists on this forum.  Thank you as well; your question helped me refine my ideas that I first came up with a few days ago, they are obviously still evolving. 

  • bgal4

     Think motivation……

  • bgal4

    At  the March 8 meeting Meehan MISREPORTED crime was down by 40%, the
    actual number he reported to council a few days earlier is 28% decline. 

    B-Side did you miss that error?

  • The Sharkey

    If Wengraf and Capitelli refuse to at least make a serious attempt at promoting/enacting such a common sense solution, then it sounds like that would be an excellent issue to use for a challenge against their Council seats in the next election.

  • berkeleykev

     At this point, I do not have “such faith” in his leadership, I am surprised that is not clear to you.  Perhaps you do not have recall of the frequent posters on this forum.  I recognize your screen name, and can recall your stands on issues like the crime situation at B high, (which I mostly agree with, fwiw). 

    I presumed you have seen (and remember) my postings expressing my outrage over Meehan’s late-night decision; if I presumed incorrectly, that is on me.  For the record:  despite my previous defense of BPD and Chief  Meehan, I am outraged by the ordering of a cop to a journalist’s home at 12:45 a.m.

    I have defended his and BPD’s handling of the initial incident based on the facts that have been publicized.  If new info comes to light about that incident, I will re-evaluate. 

    Prior to the late-night incident, I have held the force in high regard because they operate in an extreme situation, where community groups focus intense scrutiny on them, and yet they also must confront very serious criminal activites.  BPD also has had to deal with intransigent municipal entities (such as Mr. Keys’ security force and b high administration in general, and to a large extent various councilmembers), which must be very frustrating. I have also been very impressed with the way BPD has conducted itself through the whole Occupy situation, one need merely compare their activities to OPD, UCBPD or the Alameda County Sherrif’s Department to see their relative praiseworthiness.

    But all of that is distinct from my opinion about the chief’s orders Thursday night. 

    Which is what this article is about. 

    All this examination of other failures and successes of the force is thread drift, regardless of the merits of anyone’s opinions or particular experiences regarding other BPD actions.  Those opinions and experiences are important, they are just not germane to the topic at hand.

  • bgal4

    I think you are being too rigid in your attempts to separate out issues, i.e. see the related links at the bottom of this story.

    Stands on BHS safety issues?  close, how about the source of numerous formal complaints for compliance with state law on school safety matters.

    Laura Menard

  • bgal4

    Clearly you do not know much about the culture of  BPD.

  • BerkeleyMom

    Why hasn’t Tom Bates made a statement about this? Is he out of town–vacationing with Ron Dellums, maybe?

  • bgal4

     From a veteran BPD officer:

    As for BPD, yeah…you can’t make this stuff up. Although
    I have to admit, having Kusmiss show up on your porch has all the
    unnerving of your neighborhood’s old, three-legged, half blind Labrador
    Retriever wagging his tail at the your front door. There’s a lot of
    hyperbole associated with this. Still, Meehan made a ridiculously poor
    decision and given Berkeley’s knee-jerk “gotcha” response, he is going
    to have to take some well deserved lumps.

  • http://caviarcommunism.us West Bezerkeley

    From what I can see in the public sphere, he’s taking his lumps now. Just as the lumps I’ve taken in my profession over the years has made me a better professional, I expect a similar outcome for the Chief.

  • Bruce Love

    I wouldn’t compare Kusmiss to a disabled elderly dog.

    Having Kusmiss show up at the door to regretfully inform you that the chief has gone off his rocker tells me that yonder chief needs to leave office, lumps or no lumps.   Having Kusmiss show up at your door to regretfully inform you that the news story you just published in the press has met with Official Objections is scary as hell for the state of our democracy.

  • bgal4

    Separate the role and the person. Mary is a rather gentle and reasonable person.

    And please don’t lecture me about experiencing intimidation from cops sent down by their chief. Been there, as Oakley knows.

  • Bruce Love

    I did.  And do.  (Actually, I think Meehan was probably just dissembling but I’d like to give him a skeptical benefit of the doubt — so let’s look into this as a community.)   By “published information” I would include things like public mailing lists — which might overlap with the category you call “intelligence”.

    To the best of my awareness the F- the Police folks have, in recent weeks, been openly and somewhat successfully putting the “peaceful” back in their “peaceful protest”.   They’ve met with a lot of harsh but well deserved “internal” criticism and they seem to be responding.   The public information (mailing lists, web sites) I saw don’t give any credibility whatsoever to a police HQ headquarter “take-over” like Meehan was claiming.   So maybe I missed something and that’s why I ask.

  • Bruce Love

    Absolutely no “lecture” was intended.  You mistake my tone, I think.

  • bgal4

     OK cool.

    I think the comment would make M. Kumiss smile.

  • BHills

    Here is a snippet from this site’s coverage of the Council meeting yesterday (Monday.)  Worthington seems to say that since the pols have no standing to dismiss any city staff, they also have no standing to comment on their job performance; otherwise they can be sued.

    Zelda Bronstein asked why Mayor Tom Bates had made no statement since
    the news broke of Chief Meehan’s actions.

    A little later in the session, Mayor Bates said he stood by Interim
    City Manager’s statement on the incident.

    In a statement
    issued on March 10, Interim City Manager Christine Daniels said she
    understood the depth of response to the incident, but that the chief
    had acknowledged his lapse in judgment and “assured me that nothing like
    this will happen again.”

    Council member Kriss Worthington said it would be dangerous legal
    territory for council members to speak publicly on the Meehan matter.
    “The City Charter gives all powers over hiring, firing and disciplining
    to the City Manager,” he said. “If a council member expressed an opinion
    it could lead to a lawsuit.”