Police used internal database to get reporter’s address

Chief Michael Meehan at a police promotion ceremony on March 27. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

When Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan wanted to find out how to contact  Oakland Tribune reporter Doug Oakley to get him to change a story he had written, he directed a sergeant to look for an address on a police database.

The early morning search by Sgt. Mary Kusmiss on March 9 revealed reporter Doug Oakley’s phone number, but not his address, according to documents released by the city of Berkeley on Tuesday in response to a public records request made by Berkeleyside and other media.

“Comm Ctr did research *s me. He has been a RP/victim All 843XXXX I am heading home Let me know if I can help further Mary,” Sgt. Kusmiss wrote to Meehan at 12:26 am on March 9.

“RP” stands for reporting party, which means Oakley had had previous contact with the police department, either by calling in a situation or being a victim of a crime.

The question of how Sgt. Kusmiss obtained Oakley’s address has been central in the scandal that erupted after Meehan sent Kusmiss to Oakley’s house at 12:45 am on March 9 to ask him to change details in a story that had just been posted online. Police are not allowed to use their databases, or those of the DMV, for non-police related matters.

Chief Meehan has said numerous times – and he reiterated it on Tuesday – that he knew Oakley’s address because the reporter lives in Berkeley and he assumed that Sgt. Kusmiss knew it as well. The internal email indicates that Meehan directed Kusmiss to get more information on Oakley.

Alison Berry Wilkinson, an attorney engaged by Sgt Kusmiss, said Chief Meehan gave her client Oakley’s street address. On March 10, Meehan told Berkeleyside he did not give the reporter’s address to Kusmiss.

On March 8, Oakley had covered a community meeting held to discuss the police response to the Feb. 18 murder of Peter Cukor in the Berkeley hills. Oakley wrote that Meehan had apologized for the police response to the crime in a story that was posted online around 11:00 pm.

Meehan had actually apologized for the way the police handled the media, not for its response to Cukor’s 8:45 pm call to the police non-emergency line, and his wife’s call to 911 about 15 minutes later. Cukor was allegedly killed by Daniel DeWitt, a mentally ill 23-year old who was searching for “Zoey” and thought she lived in Cukor’s home at Park Gate.

When Meehan read the story online, he tried to reach Oakley, first by email and then by phone, to get him to change it. When Meehan could not reach the reporter, he sent Sgt. Kusmiss to his house to wake him up and change the story. Records show that Meehan sent Oakley an email at 11:44 pm on March 8 and another email to Kusmiss at 11:53 pm asking her for Oakley’s cell number. Kusmiss was still at the office, working.

Kusmiss told Meehan she was leaving work at 12:26 am. She then headed over to Oakley’s house. The reporter and his family were asleep when Kusmiss arrived. Oakley agreed to correct his mistake, but later that day realized how shaken he had been by Kusmiss’s visit. Oakley said he could not sleep well for days after that. First Amendment advocates — and a large number of Berkeley residents –believe the chief’s actions were intimidating and an abuse of power. Many have called for him to resign.

Although Meehan has apologized profusely for what he acknowledges is a lapse in judgment, Interim City Manager Christine Daniel hired a San Francisco law firm to investigate the chief’s actions. Neither Meehan nor the city has said when they think the investigation will be complete. Meehan said on Tuesday at a police promotion ceremony he is eager for the investigation to be completed so he can talk more freely about the situation.

“I am looking forward to answering all the questions,” said Meehan.

Other documents released by the city on Tuesday show that Meehan sent emails to two other media outlets on Friday March 9 to ask for changes in stories he considered inaccurate. He sent an email to the Berkeley Patch site at 2:36 pm asking for clarification to a story and one to the Daily Californian at 3:14 pm. He also sent other emails to Oakley that morning asking for even more changes to his story. Oakley declined to make more changes.

“It’s a direct quote,” Oakley emailed Meehan. “You said it in a public meeting. We can’t change it. I’ve accommodated you much more than any other reporter would have.”

Once stories came out about Sgt. Kusmiss’s early morning visit to the reporter, calls from the media started to pour in, the documents show. Meehan was also in contact with two public relations firms, according to the emails.

In another irony, before word had leaked out about Meehan’s misstep, he received a number of emails congratulating him on his performance in front of the crowd at the community meeting.

“Hi Mike, I thought you did a great job in dealing with that very difficult situation last night,” Howard Jordan, the Oakland police chief wrote to Meehan at 7:48 am on March 9. “Let’s do lunch soon.”

“This should make you feel GOOD!” Meehan’s boss, Daniel, wrote in an email she sent at 1:25 pm on March 9. She had forwarded him an email from a citizen commending the way Meehan talked to the crowd.

By that time, Daniel would have learned that Meehan had sent Kusmiss over to Oakley’s house. Meehan told Berkeleyside that he contacted Daniel the morning of Friday March 9 to tell her what he had done. There was no email to that effect in the documents released Tuesday by the city.

Related:
Officer put in awkward position by Berkeley police chief [03.16.12]
Berkeley City orders investigation into police chief [03.16.12]

Spotlight on City Manager’s response to Berkeley Police Chief [03.14.12]
Few comments on Chief Meehan before Council session [03.13.12]
Questions remain about Berkeley police chief’s actions [03.11.12]
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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  • Bruce Love

    Will Berkeleyside please make the documents available on-line?

    This is really remarkable:

    Chief Meehan has said numerous times – and he reiterated it on Tuesday
    – that he knew Oakley’s address because the reporter lives in Berkeley
    and he assumed that Sgt. Kusmiss knew it as well. The internal e-mail
    indicates that Meehan directed Kusmiss to get more information on
    Oakley.

    This makes it sound a though:

    1. The chief has repeatedly misled the public as to the events of that night.

    2. In so doing, he was hiding from the public what may have been an unlawful records search.

  • Frances Dinkelspiel

     Bruce. There are 1400 pages of emails and documents. Berkeleyside is getting copies of some of those pages and we will make them available later this week.

  • John Holland

    Berkeleyleaks! Cool!

  • Petsitter101

    Frances,
    Personally, I’d prefer you not use all your resources on this story.  Maybe that’s just me.  I see it discussed ad nauseum with so much speculation and second guessing, hindsight etc.  I guess that is hard to avoid, given the subject and concerns.  Would seeing those 1400 pages of email and documents better enlighten me?  I guess they probably would Thomas, or the private investigation team hired by the City.  But in the end, if light is shed in the deep dark secretive hallways of the police dept., the citizens of Berkeley will be better served.  Maybe, maybe not.

  • David Clore

    Virtually all homeowner addresses nationwide (including Mr. Oakley’s) can be found in 20 seconds by anyone by using http://www.zabasearch.com. Hard to understand the need for anything more complicated than that.

  • The Sharkey

    I agree. If people really want to read all 1,400 pages maybe the Berkeley Daily Planet can host them. I assume they have access to the same documents.

  • The Sharkey

    Wow, that is creepy. Everyone I know is on there, and they have past addresses running back 30+ years for some of them.

  • David Clore

    Indeed.  As far as I know it has been operational for 7-8 years. Here’s the first account that I ever saw of it (written by Xeni Jardin, Wired reporter back then and now at Boingboing.net). 

    http://www.wired.com/politics/security/news/2005/05/67407 

  • Bruce Love

    Bruce. There are 1400 pages of emails and documents. Berkeleyside is
    getting copies of some of those pages and we will make them available
    later this week.

    Neat.

    I think it’s helpful if you can also make the raw material directly available as a zip file or compressed “tar file” (if that means anything to you).   That makes it easier to download the lot while minimizing consumption of your bandwidth, and then to apply automated search tools.

    (Perhaps the city itself ought to be doing the same for all records requests like these:  maintaining a public archive of the releases in a conveniently downloadable form.)

  • Charles_Siegel

    I agree also.  Publishing the documents would lead to endless speculation, as Berkeleyside readers cherry-pick data that suits their bias. 

    Meehan’s action is being investigated by a professional who will evaluate all the documents. 

    He should not be tried in the press.  And he should certainly not be tried by blog comments.

  • Bruce Love

    Charles, here is an example of why the documents should be released.

    Berkeleyside has asserted:

    Chief Meehan has said numerous times – and he reiterated it on Tuesday – that he knew Oakley’s address because the reporter lives in Berkeley and he assumed that Sgt. Kusmiss knew it as well. The internal email indicates that Meehan directed Kusmiss to get more information on Oakley.

    Berkeleyside has implied that the Chief’s account of things is contradicted by the record — but the article contains no clear evidence of that.

    There is no such thing as reporting that is free of bias and opinion.  Source materials, on the other hand, are objective.   Is the quoted summary a fair account of the facts or not?   If we can see the source materials, we can judge for ourselves.

    That you would advocate withholding source materials from a public suggests to me that you do not value the public’s access to objective truth.

  • Frances Dinkelspiel

    Bruce, Chief Meehan told me in an interview twice that he thought Kusmiss knew Oakley’s address. So you have to decide how to evaluate that based on your evaluation of my reporting. There is no document I can show you to substantiate it. (Having you read my handwriting would be cruel and unusual punishment.)

    I already inserted the entire quote about the database in this story. 

    So this would not be a case where more illuminating information is forthcoming.

  • Charles_Siegel

    I don’t advocate withholding source material from the public.

    I do object to putting the source material on a blog website, where it will be subject to endless off-the-wall comments by anonymous reviewers.  (I am not referring to you, since we do know your identity.) 

    Putting it on this blog would result in endless slurs – which I do not think is appropriate when someone’s reputation is at stake.

    Because comments can be anonymous, there is no remedy for libel.

    I would not object to publishing it in the Planet, where people can comment on the material by writing letters or opinion pieces using their real names.  The requirement to use your real name is a check on irresponsible libel.  

  • BHills

    “First Amendment advocates — and a large number of Berkeley residents
    –believe the chief’s actions were intimidating and an abuse of power.
    Many have called for him to resign.”

    And some Berkeley residents continue to support the chief and hope that he will be permitted to get back to the business of improving the police force.

  • BHills

     I remember when it was possible to suppress one’s address in the “telephone directory.”  On the other hand, there was a time (in the 1940s, I think) when local telephone directories included a listing of the person’s employer.

  • Bruce Love

    Frances I do not question at all that Meehan said those things to you.   On that question, you are yourself a source and I see no reason to doubt you.

    Here is where I have a problem, though:

    The only quote you put in the story was this, from an email from Sgt. Kusmiss:

    “Comm Ctr did research *s me. He has been a RP/victim All 843XXXX I am heading home Let me know if I can help further Mary,”

    Juxtaposed with your summation:

    The internal email indicates that Meehan directed Kusmiss to get more information on Oakley.

    I do not see in Sgt. Kusmiss’ reply anything that clear shows what Meehan “directed Kusmiss” to do vis a vis Oakley’s address or phone number.   I surmised you must be referring to some part of the email trail that you did not quote or to some other source.