Family of murder victim criticizes police response

The entrance to the house where Peter Cukor was attacked and killed. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Peter Cukor used his cell phone and what he had been told was an emergency number when he called Berkeley police to report that a strange man was lurking around his property, his family said at a press conference Friday.

Just about a week before Cukor was allegedly attacked and killed by 23-year old Daniel DeWitt, he received an email from a neighborhood group informing him to program 510-981-5911 into his cell phone to use during emergencies, according to R. Lewis Van Blois, an Oakland attorney representing the family. Cukor used that number at 8:45 pm on Feb. 18 to convey that he needed a police officer to help immediately, said Van Blois.

Berkeley police did not respond immediately to Cukor’s request for help because the dispatcher did not think there was a crime in progress or any threat to life. Cukor called on a non-emergency line and spoke in a calm voice, Berkeley police have repeatedly said.

“When you say there is a 6’4” intruder who won’t leave and is spacey,” that’s an emergency, said Van Blois. “If a dispatcher doesn’t think that’s an emergency and a potential home invasion, she should ask another question.”

The dispatcher rated Cukor’s call Priority 2 but did not immediately send an officer to his house at 2 Park Gate because the department was only responding to Priority 1 calls at the time. At 8:43 pm, just two minutes before Cukor’s call, Berkeley police had decided not to respond to Priority 2 calls because there was a shift change. Police brass needed to update officers about an Occupy Oakland march that was expected to come to Berkeley later that night.

An officer who had offered to respond to three outstanding Priority 2 calls just a few minutes before 9:00 pm was told not to, according to police documents. Just three minutes later, Andrea Cukor called 911 and informed police that DeWitt was allegedly attacking her husband with a planter.

“My father should be alive – and we hope steps will be taken to ensure that this can never happen to another citizen,” Christopher Cukor, 37, said at a press conference at Van Blois’ office. He was there with his wife Nina and brother Alexander Cukor, 34. (Berkeleyside was not there but was given a copy of his statement.)

Berkeley police never told the senior Cukor that there would be a lag in the response time, said his son. For this – and the fact that one officer was prevented from responding – they bear partial responsibility for his death, he said.

“I am aware that the police have stated that they made no ‘mistake’ in their response to my father’s call for help,” said Christopher Cukor. “We find this very disturbing – that a citizen’s call for emergency help can go unanswered and lead to his death is not a mistake? Surely something is terribly wrong – and other citizens should be deeply concerned. My father was not told that his call was ranked Priority 2 – he asked for ‘an officer up here right away’ because there was a ’6’4″ intruder who says he lives here’. He ‘wants to come inside’ and ‘he’s pretty spacey’. My father saw a clear threat of an invasion of his home and asked for immediate help.”

The family has not yet decided if it will file a lawsuit against the police department, said Van Blois. But they are calling for some changes in how police communicate with people calling for help. The suggestions include:

  •  all emergency callers should immediately be told what Priority their call is being given
  •  callers should be given an approximate response time so they can take appropriate precautions to protect themselves during the time the police are not responding.
  • dispatchers should receive additional training to more accurately assess the nature of calls
  • shift changes and  briefing sessions must not impact emergency responses

Berkeley police have maintained that, even though they were holding a briefing to discuss the Occupy Oakland march, they were equipped to respond to all emergency calls.

DeWitt has been charged with murder, but an Alameda County Court Judge ruled he is incompetent to stand trial and has ordered him to be committed to Napa State Hospital until at least July. Dewitt was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 18 and has been in and out of mental hospitals since then. DeWitt’s family has said they tried to get him repeatedly admitted for long-term treatment but DeWitt declined to receive it. Under California law, it is very difficult to commit people to mental institutions without their consent.

The Cukors called on Alameda County to adopt Laura’s Law, which would make it easier to provide long-term treatment to those who need it.

“Daniel DeWitt should have been locked up long ago – he was a clear danger to himself and others,” said Christopher Cuckor. “There is a law, Laura’s Law, that was passed in 2002 that tries to end the “revolving” door of the mental health system. However, this law must be adopted by counties to go into effect – we urge Alameda County to adopt this law immediately.”

The family does not blame individual police officers for Cukor’s death, but police policies, said Van Blois.

“They respect the men and women of the police department who put their lives on the line every day,” said Van Blois. “What the family is upset about is that they weren’t allowed to do their job. They were prevented from doing their job by the policies of the Berkeley Police Department.”

View a BPD public communication giving out 510-981-5911 as an emergency number.

View an unofficial transcript of Peter Cukor’s 8:45 pm call to BPD.

View an email that Cukor received from a neighborhood emergency preparedness group telling him about an emergency number for cell phones. The group is set up to ready residents for natural disasters. It is not a crime prevention group, according to Stephanie Wade, president of the Park Hills Homes Association.

Related:
City releases transcript of murder victim’s call the police [03.27.12]
Suspect not competent to stand trial in Cukor murder [03.22.12]
Community gathers in wake of murder: quizzes Berkeley police [03.09.12]

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]

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  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    I think some apologies are in order here from a few select commentators…although i don’t really expect it to happen!

  • Bruce Love

    The neighborhood  watch email about the x5911 number references a Berkeleyside article.  The email must have contained a link but it isn’t reproduced here.   Was it this article?

    http://www.berkeleyside.com/2011/05/05/crime-prevention-top-of-mind-for-a-berkeley-community/

  • Meliflaw

    Odd. We’re usually encouraged to try and stay calm during emergencies. I wonder whether the BPD dispatchers are trained to ask, clearly and concisely, “Do you feel physically threatened?” or something like that.

  • Meliflaw

    Odd. We’re usually encouraged to try and stay calm during emergencies. I wonder whether the BPD dispatchers are trained to ask, clearly and concisely, “Do you feel physically threatened?” or something like that.

  • bgal4

    Again.

    The delayed response is also the result of police dept policies that require at a minimum two patrol cars to be dispatched to calls in which the potential for resistance or violence is unknown.

    If BPD were allowed tasers  this policy could be revised. As it is now 2 or 3 officers are required to safely restrain a resisting person.

  • Frances Dinkelspiel

     Bruce I don’t know but that is a good guess as the email quotes almost verbatim from the story that calling 911 from your cell phone routes you to Vallejo CHP, which then has to reroute you to the proper police station.

  • Joe

    Good luck with the lawsuit – police have no duty to protect.  See Castle Rock v. Gonzales

    You can even read about it in Police Chief Magazine: http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display&article_id=341&issue_id=72004

  • John Holland

    I wouldn’t be so cynical about it. Apologies are not uncommon on Berkeleyside. They do happen.

    Personally, I’ve apologized several times on Berkeleyside. For example, I apologized for suggesting that some B-side commenters were racially motivated, and for being unfairly harsh.

    Other posters have apologized on Berkeleyside as well. For example, “The Sharkey” apologized for mistaking me as a rational adult.

    Why don’t you quote any comment that you find offensive, and ask the poster for an apology? You might be pleasantly surprised.

    Finally, be resigned that you may not receive an apology. For example, no one apologized to the Dewitt family for suggesting that they were lying about their son’s mental health to save him from the death penalty:

    I had to make that apology myself.

  • Bill

    Based on this article and the pdf about BPD public communications the family really has valid point about the clarity of what 5911does or is supposed to do. I certainly have it programmed into my cell phone and expect it to be just like calling 911.  The NON_EMERGENCY # is 981-5900.  The family’s suggestions are simple and I would think easily implemented.  I was surprised that each county had to implement Laura’s Law and agree, it is a needed step in the right direction.  I hope they don’t file a lawsuit though since the money will come from all of us and won’t necessarily get any changes made. It’s more of a help if they keep up the political and public pressure to solve this problem.

  • Bill

    First the group referred to in the article is NOT a “Neighborhood Watch” group.  The email came from a member of the Emergency Preparedness Committee that focuses on CERT classes and preparation for disasters of all kinds.  The article your asking about in Berkeleyside is this one which Alan cited:

    http://www.berkeleyside.com/2010/05/24/why-making-911-calls-from-your-cell-is-not-advisable/

  • bgal4

     While your adding to uncommon apology list on B-Side, go ahead and apologize to me for slandering me with your silly website.

    Do you think the gangsters who robbed Eric in Vallejo got a tip he was transporting product from Berkeley?

  • Jane Tierney

    Everyone keeps focusing on the police response. That’s easy. But do we have any evidence that if Cukor had NOT left his home that evening, right after he called the police, that he would have been hurt? Also, once attacked, soon after he went outside again of his own volition, is there any evidence the police would have been able to save him? He obviously had a major head injury. Not sure anyone arriving in a minute could have done anything to save him, unfortunately. If we are talking about protocol for future events, then first step would be to move closer to a police station. It’s a five minute drive up to the hills to start with, from the nearest police. I think the perpetrator is to blame, plain and simple. Very sorry, but why go on about it. Our system let a mentally ill man loose on the street. A perfectly nice Berkeley resident made a bad decision to go outside once he identified a menacing person near his home. I feel badly for the family. But I don’t know if there is anyone responsible that deserves to be sued.

  • Irisandjules

    My exact sentiments, Jane.  

  • Anonymous

    Would you have the same response if it was the exact same scenario but the victim was a woman who was raped instead of bludgeoned with a brick?

  • Bruce Love

     Jane if the police had treated the first call as an emergency, they’d have had 15 minutes to get up there.   When they got a call that they did treat as an emergency, it took them something like 8 minutes to arrive.   So one question is did the police go wrong (and why) classifying that first call.

    Another thing to consider is that even treating the call as the second rather than first highest priority, BPD chose not to dispatch anyone until more than 15 minutes later and then only in response to the second call.   So another question is were the police making a negligent choice deciding to reduce service at that time.

    (And perhaps the two questions are related.  Did the reduced service order encourage a misclassification of the first call.)

    I’m not saying that the Cukor’s should or should not sue or who or making what claims but when you wrote:

    Not sure anyone arriving in a minute could have done anything to save him, unfortunately.

    You don’t seem to understand the reported time-line of events that night and why it raises questions about the City’s potential liability.

  • Heather_W_62

    My viewpoint on this case has changed vastly ss I’ve read through all the information I have had at my disposal, and as much as I’d like to not have BPD be sued, I have to say that it seems apparent that Cukor was given the impression that BPD would respond, even though they were not ever going to respond. If Dewitt had just stumbled off Cukor’s property, nothing would have happened. The police would never have showed up and Cukor would be alive. I surmise that Cukor’s call was a sincere call for assistance, imminent enough that he felt it prudent to find help from the local Fire Station. Upon returning without help from the F.D., he was nailed by a delusional Dewitt. Frankly, that the dispatcher gave Cukor the impression that help was on the way, when it wasn’t and never was going to be, is enough to instigate a lawsuit. 

  • http://caviarcommunism.us West Bezerkeley

    I agree 100%.

    BPD is not there to protect people from making bad decisions. This is a horrible situation, but Mr. Cukor made a fateful decision that BPD had nothing to do with.

  • Heather_W_62

    What does confuse me about the time line is why Cukor chose to go to the fire station less than 15 minutes after he initially called BPD. If I am correct that dispatch inferred that an officer would go, why didn’t Cukor wait? 
    The only reason I can think that he might have gone to the Fire Dept is that he wasn’t sure that they would respond in a timely manner.  The important part though, is that Cukor’s 1st call was not going to be answered in any kind of timely manner, and only upon the 2nd call were officers dispatched. 

  • Irisandjules

    You find me a woman who would have walked back outside with a seemingly crazy man, 6’4″, hanging around? I think Mr. Cukor thought the guy was crazy but did not consider him enough of a threat to stay inside and wait for police to arrive. 

  • Anonymous

    I have no idea what kind of woman you are or even if you are one. I just don’t see any difference between between blaming him for going outside and a woman being blamed for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    Cukor Felt like BPD wasn’t going to come so he went to get the fire dept to help when he was coming back the Monster attacked Him! Mental illness or not Only a monster would do something like this to another Human!

  • John Holland

    “3rdGenBerkeleyan” wrote:

    Cukor Felt like BPD wasn’t going to come

    This is contradicted by the family:

    Berkeley police never told the senior Cukor that there would be a lag in the response time, said his son.

    The family’s point is the Mr. Cukor thought the police were on their way when they weren’t. What makes us think Cukor felt like BPD wasn’t coming?
    “3rdGenBerkeleyan” wrote:

    so he went to get the fire dept to help

    Which indicates he musn’t have been too scared. I’ve asked this question repeatedly, and no one seems to be able to give me a good answer:

    If Mr. Cukor really thought his life was in immediate danger, why would he risk his own life by going outside, and why would he abandon his wife alone in the house?

  • John Holland

    If I were in the Cukor’s shoes, I would add two items to the Cukors family’s suggestion for the police:

    5. Advise the caller to shelter in place and to avoid the suspect.
    6. Classify suspicious person calls as sirens-blazing P1 emergencies, even if they do not include an indication that a life-threatening crime is in progress. (Currently, this is classified as P2).

    Personally, I do not agree with number 6, but I do believe that is what many people on this forum are asking for.

  • John Holland

    “Heather_W_62″ wrote:

    The only reason I can think that he might have gone to the Fire Dept is that he wasn’t sure that they would respond in a timely manner.

    Agreed. Also, he obviously thought it was safe enough to go outside and leave his wife alone with the suspect on their property.

  • John Holland

    “Heather_W-62″ wrote:

    I surmise that Cukor’s call was a sincere call for assistance, imminent enough that he felt it prudent to find help from the local Fire Station.

    But not dangerous enough to have to stay inside.

  • The Sharkey

    Oh come on, John. You were getting better for a couple days.

    Do you really need to go back into Petty Troll Mode like this?

  • The Sharkey

    Or, perhaps, he was so concerned about their safety and thought that danger was so immediate that he decided that risking his help trying to get help from the Fire Department was more prudent than waiting for the Police.

    Either scenario is equally plausible.

  • The Sharkey

    Which indicates he musn’t have been too scared.

    No, it doesn’t.
    You are inferring that with no evidence to support it.
    Just because you would presumably cower in fear instead of seeking aid if you thought your life was in danger does not mean that Mr. Cukor would react in the same way.

    Perhaps he decided to bravely risk his life trying to get assistance from the Fire Department because he was worried that he and his wife would both be slaughtered if he didn’t get immediate help.

    As much as you may rationalize your point of view as being the only valid one, we’ll never know because BPD’s decision to classify the call as P2 and the unfortunate coincidence of the Fire House being empty resulted in Mr. Cukor’s death.

  • The Sharkey

    6. Classify intruder on property calls in which the citizen asks for immediate police assistance as sirens-blazing P1 emergencies, even if they do not include an
    indication that a life-threatening crime is in progress. (Currently,
    this is classified as P2).

    Fixed that for you.

  • The Sharkey

    Why aren’t BPD officers allowed to use tasers?
    Even BART Police and a lot of Mall Cops have tasers these days…

  • John Holland

    Agreed. Basically anyone who won’t leave your property, even if they’re “just standing around”, would get classified as an immediate P1 emergency.

    Personally, I think that is overkill, but I believe it’s a matter of preference, and it seems to be what many people here seem to feel should happen.

  • John Holland

    “The Sharkey” wrote:

    Perhaps he decided to bravely risk his life trying to get assistance from the Fire Department because he was worried that he and his wife would both be slaughtered if he didn’t get immediate help.

    You are inferring that with no evidence to support it. 

    Still, I think your point of view is valid. However, I still think it is less likely. We never have any indication that Mr. Cukor was afraid for his life.

    Personally, if I thought a violent, 6’4″ was trying to attack me, I wouldn’t think I could out run him to the fire station, nor would I leave my elderly wife alone.

    I’d stay put, call 911 and report an “attack”, rather than someone “just standing around”.If the situation was so dire for Mr. Cukor to desperately outrun a 6’4″ football star to the fire station (or leave that man alone on the property with his wife), don’t you think ~that’s~ when Mrs. Cukor would have called to say that the situation had escalated?

    If not, what was she thinking? “My husband is desperately running for his life to the fire station, trying to outrun a 6’4″ 20-year old attacker, leaving me alone in the house without protection. I think I’ll call 911 when he gets back.”

    It just doesn’t seem likely. I personally feel Mr. Cukor was very concerned about the “gentleman”, and what could happen, but I don’t think he had a reason to be in fight-or-flight. But that’s just my point of view, not the only valid one.

  • The Sharkey

    You are inferring that with no evidence to support it.

    …which was the point. I did exactly what you were doing, in order to show you what you were doing.

    What you would or wouldn’t do is irrelevant. You are claiming to know what Mr. Cukor was thinking/feeling based on his actions and strongly suggesting that your interpretation of events is the only possible correct one, and I am trying to point out how a slightly different reading of the exact same list of sketchy facts can be read to show the exact opposite of what you are saying.

    Attack? Outrun a football player? Running for his life? Nobody said this, at all.
    Stop twisting words and purposefully distorting the statements of people you disagree with.

  • The Sharkey

    You say you agree, but you can’t help but keep modifying what I said.

    Note the inclusion of the line “in which the citizen asks for immediate police assistance – it’s important.

  • John Holland

    “The Sharkey” wrote:

     ”in which the citizen asks for immediate police assistance”

    Help me get it right:

    Intruder “just standing around on property”: P2

    Intruder “just standing around on property” where caller requests immediate police assistance: P1

    Do I have it right now?

  • John Holland

    Or, put another way: anyone who won’t leave your property, even if they’re “just standing around”, would get classified as an immediate P1 emergency if the caller asks for immediate police assistance.

    Basically, the caller determines the priority.

  • The Sharkey

    That’s what I said. It’s not that hard to figure out.

    As we can see in this case, an intruder on someone’s property can quickly escalate to a life-or-death situation. Because of the potential for violence in this kind of situation if the caller explicitly requests immediate Police assistance – as Mr. Cukor did – they should get it.

  • John Holland

    “The Sharkey” wrote:

    It’s not that hard to figure out.

    It was hard for me to wrap my head around, just because it seems as though currently calls classified based on the circumstances of the situation, (e.g. an intruder just standing around).

    This would add a new dimension in call classification: the whim of the caller, something that hasn’t been previously considered.

    In your mind, would an “intruder standing around where caller requests immediate police assistance” be a higher priority than “calls with a threat of violence” (which are P2)?

    Would you also create a new class of calls: “calls with a threat of violence,” where the caller requests immediate police assistance” and classify those as P1?

    Because to me, “an intruder just standing around on your property” sounds like a call with a threat of violence, which is currently P2.

    So, I think if I’m understanding you, the emphasis is on this, right? It’s the ~request~ for immediate assistance, ~not~ the circumstances of the situation that should escalate the call, correct?

    I’ve never heard of that before.

  • John Holland

    Maybe dispatcher protocol should be to explicitly ask if there is an attack in progress, or if the caller feels like their life is in danger.

    Not just a “threat of violence”… that’s P2, of course. But if their life is currently in danger.

    By the way, how do you see “potential of violence” as different than “threat of violence”. Because “threat of violence” is P2.

    Maybe we should just request that all “threat of violence” calls be re-classified as P1. That is another approach.

  • The Sharkey

    Who can better determine the potential for violence and swiftness of response required for a situation, someone on the scene, or someone sitting in a cubicle in an office?

    The question is rhetorical, by the way. I doubt either of us is going to change anyone’s mind, I’m just trying to explain why a lot of people disagree with your views on this issue.

  • John Holland

    Here’s where my thinking has evolved: I think that a fair debate for the city to have is whether or not “threat of violence” should be a P1. Although I didn’t see it that way, a lot of people looked at the circumstances and said, “Isn’t it obvious it was an emergency?” That sentiment seemed to come from the obvious threat of violence. 

    I totally agree that even though Mr. Dewitt was “just standing around”, there was threat of violence. I think many people here seem to feel that simply the threat of violence should be enough to classify the call as a P1.

    I’m hesitant, because I believe there is cost involved, and a potential for abuse. But I’m sympathetic with the sentiment, and think it’s fair for discussion.

    I’d still argue against it, but I think it’s a simple way to reflect the valid will of a lot of people here: classify “threat of violence” as a P1 from now on.

  • Jane Tierney

    I think your comparison is a stretch. I’m not blaming him for what happened. Women face harassment and the threat of rape everyday of our lives. We mitigate this threat by traveling together, when we can, not going out late at night, when we don’t have to, and staying away from poorly lit areas, among other things. If we encountered someone menacing, we would move away from that person, even walk in the middle of the street to get away. That doesn’t mean if something happened it would be our fault, it would simply mean we could have helped ourselves more by being mindful of our surroundings. Rapes are very seldom reported in progress, but after the fact.