Berkeley will spend up to $50K after police chief blunder

BPD Chief Michael Meehan: two outside agencies have been hired by the city after a mistake he made on March 9

The city of Berkeley has hired a public relations firm at a cost of $24,000 to review the police department’s media policies, bringing the price tag to $49,000 for Police Chief Michael Meehan’s decision to send a sergeant to a reporter’s home in the middle of the night to ask for a change to a story.

Cornerstone Communications, located in Irvine, will audit the police department’s policies on the release of information, make recommendations to ensure the department is following “best practices,” media guidelines, and train police personnel on changing media dynamics, on understanding social media, and media culture.

The firm will talk to police management and reporters who cover the police department, and assess the police department’s reputation in recent news coverage and social media space. The contract was signed on May 1.

“The goal here is to learn and for the police department to do the best it can,” Bill Rams, the company founder and a former investigative reporter for the Orange County Register, told the Oakland Tribune.

The hiring of Cornerstone Communications comes more than two months after Meehan’s March 9 action, a decision for which he has repeatedly apologized and said he regrets.

After Oakland Tribune reporter Doug Oakley wrote an article about a community meeting called to talk about the police response to the Feb. 18 murder of Berkeley Hills resident Peter Cukor, Meehan ordered Sgt. Mary Kusmiss to go to Oakley’s home at 12:45 am. Oakley had written that Meehan had apologized for the way the police responded, when, in fact, Meehan had not said that. The chief had apologized for the way the police responded to the media, not to the crime.

Meehan had called and emailed Oakley after the story went online around 11:00 pm. When Meehan could not contact the reporter, he sent Kusmiss to ask Oakley to change the story. Oakley was asleep when Kusmiss arrived at his house. He corrected the article and later told Berkeleyside that he felt intimidated by her visit, even though he knew her well.

Reporter Doug Oakley: was called on a story

The early morning visit was widely criticized, with news stories appearing around the world. Some observers suggested it smacked of police intimidation or censorship.

A few days after the visit, Interim City Manager Christine Daniel hired the San Francisco law firm of Renne, Sloan, Holtzman, Sakai to investigate Meehan’s actions. The contract authorizes the firm to spend up to $25,000 to look into the situation. Jeffrey Sloan, the lead attorney on the investigation, will be paid $350 an hour. A more junior attorney in the firm will be paid $235 an hour, and an investigator will be paid $205 an hour, if approved in advance by Berkeley, according to the contract.

It does not look like the results of that investigation will be made public. City officials have said it is a personnel matter. Meehan, however, could request that the report be made public.

Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, who has served as the police department’s public information officer numerous times in the past 10 years, was called to testify at the inquiry. She has since announced that she is stepping down from her current position. No replacement has been named, although Meehan said recently he had a strong candidate.

The police department has been in turmoil since the incident. The Berkeley Police Association, the union that represents most of the officers in the department, has criticized Meehan’s actions. It also sent the city manager a strongly worded letter on March 16 calling for an impartial investigation. Daniels had already hired the Renne law firm by the time the BPA sent its letter, but had not made the information public. She did so about 30 minutes after news stories about the BPA letter appeared.

Cornerstone Communications will complete its initial work within 45 days and will complete the re-training of police officers by October 31. The contract is worth $20,000, with an additional $4,000 added for travel expenses.

Read the contract with Cornerstone Communications. Read the contract with the Renne, Sloan, Holtzman, Sakai law firm.

Berkeley police officer switching jobs in wake of scandal [04.19.12]
Police used internal database to get reporter’s address [03.28.12]
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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  • PragmaticProgressive

    While I understand that the Meehan/Oakley incident was a catalyst for this expense, it doesn’t sound like every dime of that 24K is a direct cost of the affair.  Management might, after internal reflection, have concluded that the department needs to update its level of media savvy.  If that training can keep officers from doing something foolish that shows up on youtube and later in court, well, that might be a smart investment.  

  • Zjb1731

    Who, exactly, is Cornerstone Communications, and what qualifies its staff to do this work? And $4,000 for travel–from Irvine?  I’d like to see an itemized account of those expenses.

  • bgal4

    Some years about BPD hired a so-called expert in problem oriented policing based on compstat principles. The rank and file rolled their eyes at this expense and for good reason. I forget the details, and am not planning on searching council records, ( knock yourself out Lord and Holland).  I do know this, the training did not motivate cultural or organizational change, any progress was nominal at best.

    Come on folks, BPD has shifted to a geographic based command staff. The purpose of geographic policing is to hold a commander responsible for showing crime reduction and provide data as proof.
    When has any of these commanders brought data, much less basic analysis to one of these cafe meet ups with residents.

    The Cukor incident is a bump in Meehan’s career plans, now it is time for real leadership, substance over buzz word programs.

    Berkeley residents have plenty of opinions but on the whole voters/residents rarely expect accountability from their government. 

    There are plenty of indicators that BPD is moving further away from transparency and community policing every year.

  • Bruce Love

    Some years about BPD hired a so-called expert in problem oriented policing based on compstat principles. The rank and file rolled their eyes at this expense and for good reason. I forget the details, and am not planning on searching council records, ( knock yourself out Lord and Holland).

    Why?  You are doing fine.   I don’t happen to agree with your fondness for compstat but that’s not central to your point.  (I’m on about the same page as many of the critiques of compstat described on Wikipedia.)


    There are plenty of indicators that BPD is moving further away from transparency and community policing every year.

    What I hear from the world of reporters is that its always been very bad in the first place.   To say it’s getting worse is really saying something.

    To give you some idea of my view:  I’d already heard news of the “consultant” deal on the TeeVee this morning.   When I first glimpsed the headline on Berkeleyside I misread it as “Berkeley will spend up to $50,000 to cover up police chief blunder.”

    But, hey:  armored vehicle!

    There’s a lot great about the department.   I’ve received almost entirely very good responses to calls I’ve needed to make.  But….  as you say.

  • bgal4

    whatever, just another comment by Thomas Lord twisting in the wind……..

  • Bruce Love

     Be civil.

  • bgal4

     Dude, there is nothing uncivil in applying objective reasoning

  • Heather_W_62

    I’m not sure I understand what this money is being spent for or how it relates to Meehan’s actions. 

  • Chrisjuricich

     I agree. 24 large to assure that our BPD folks don’t say anything stupid and make themselves (and …) look like dorks. You’d think that cops, like any grown up, would have the education to avoid doing and saying stupid things. But they do–just like I do…despite being married for nearly 30 years.

    Kind of a waste of money if anyone asked me.

  • cl3

    Started to type a comment, changed my mind, but don’t see how to delete. Anyway, the idea that the city needs to spend this kind of money in support of a narcissistic police chief is sickening. The chief still needs to go, and “spare” funds for police chief incompetence should instead be spent where there is a real need, such as food, sanitation, mental health, … or any similar worthy cause.