Cukor family settles lawsuit against Berkeley police

Peter and Andrea Cukor. Photo: Matthew Sumner

Peter and Andrea Cukor. Photo: Matthew Sumner

The family of Peter Cukor, who was allegedly killed by a mentally disturbed man in February 2012 while he waited for police to come to his house, has dropped its lawsuit against Berkeley in exchange for promises to change the questions dispatchers ask those calling during an emergency.

Berkeley has not admitted any fault in connection with the tragedy, said R. Lewis Van Blois, who represents Cukor’s widow, Andrea, and her adult sons Alexander and Christopher.

“The changes will result in better communication between the Communication Center and the emergency caller regarding police response to calls,” said Van Blois.

It would have been very difficult to win the lawsuit against Berkeley and the police department because state laws provide a lot of immunity to dispatchers and officers, said Van Blois. The family was most interested in making sure changes took place so that what happened to Cukor not happen to someone else, he said.

Van Blois said the dispatcher taking Cukor’s call did not ask the right questions, which led Cukor to take actions he might otherwise not have taken.

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

Peter Cukor was attacked and killed outside his home in North Berkeley’s Park Hills neighborhood. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Cukor, 67, and his wife, Andrea, were returning to their home at 2 Park Gate Road in the Berkeley hills around 8:45 p.m. on Feb. 18, 2012 when they encountered Daniel DeWitt, then 23. DeWitt told them he was looking for a “Zoey,” he said he believed lived there. DeWitt was schizophrenic and had stopped taking his medications. Cukor told DeWitt to leave, and entered the house where he called Berkeley police at 981-5911 from his cell phone to report the intruder.

Since Cukor spoke in a calm voice and did not call 911, the police dispatcher determined it was a Priority 2 call, which must be responded to within 20 minutes, rather than a Priority 1 call which means there is a crime in progress or life threatening emergency and gets immediate response, according to statements made by Berkeley police officials after the murder.

But the police were in the middle of a shift change and were anticipating trouble from an Occupy march that was scheduled to go from Oakland to UC Berkeley that night. Top police officials wanted to brief the incoming officers on the march and ordered that no Priority 2 calls get answered.

In the lawsuit, Van Blois said that the police dispatcher taking Cukor’s call had told him that a police officer was on his way, even though that was incorrect. Cukor had the impression police would arrive soon, so he went outside with a flashlight to help officers locate his home, which was set back from the road. DeWitt then allegedly beat Cukor to death with a flowerpot. Cukor’s wife, Andrea, witnessed the attack and called 911. The police then responded immediately and arrested DeWitt a short time later. DeWitt was eventually charged with murder but has been found mentally unfit to stand trial. He is now in the Napa State Hospital.

The agreement has three points, which Van Blois said should provide “a very practical solution to a difficult problem”:

  • Call takers may advise that an officer will respond when a unit is available for their call but, when appropriate, may add there may be a delay due to high-priority calls in progress or the current volume of calls.
  • In response to the caller requesting an estimated time of arrival, the call taker may say we cannot estimate the time of arrival because there are too many variables. However, the call taker may advise the caller, if appropriate, that if the suspect returns, or they feel threatened, they should immediately call the 911 line.
  • When appropriate, the call taker may ask the caller towards the end of the call if there is anything else the caller wants to add.

The family “didn’t want to see this get swept under the rug,” said Van Blois. “They wanted to bring this out into the open. Those in the city all know they could have prevented this if they had been a little more attentive.”

While the Cukor family felt that the dispatcher made false representations to Cukor, a former dispatcher defended the Communications Center’s actions, in a comment written yesterday on Berkeleyside.

“At the end of the day, it is unfortunate that Mr. Cukor lost his life,” the dispatcher wrote on Berkeleyside. (He or she did not leave a name.) “Listening to the tapes and all the facts, I do not feel the dispatchers did anything wrong. I think they did exactly as they were told. I think the problem lies in the command staff. The BEAT officers were in a briefing for the Occupy Protest. There were no extra officers called in to assist with the Occupy Protest. So, the normal beat officers would have been tied up on protest all night……. That means, there would have been no officers to protect the rest of the city. If the city pays overtime for football games, high school dances and special events, why weren’t extra officers called in to cover the protest. I can assure you the department was aware that the Occupiers were going to do some additional protesting that night, but they did not take action to bring in additional officers to insure the safety of the city…….”

Andrea Cukor has since sold the house on Park Gate Road and moved from Berkeley, said Van Blois.

Now that the lawsuit has been resolved, “the family can move on and hopefully live with it and deal with the future knowing some good came out of this.”

Family of murder victim files suit against Berkeley [11.15.12]
Family of Peter Cukor criticizes police response [03.12.12]
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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  • guest

    Obviously you have absolutely no understanding of the American legal system.

  • Truth Sayer

    He called the police, notifying them that a deranged man was on his property. The police did not send anyone. My point is, a lay person usually not have the experience of police and/or security professionals to know the dangers of such persons. I think the family was extremely generous to such terms.

  • cjmorrill

    The bottom line is that a fine man died unnecessarily, a mentally ill man will – hopefully, since our state does not take care of its mentally ill – be locked up for the rest of his life, and the permutations of that murder will forever color the lives of both families in ways no one can imagine. Both should never have happened if the Berkeley police had listened and responded.

  • guest

    “He called the police, notifying them that a deranged man was on his property.”

    Actually, that is not what he said.

  • Truth Sayer

    He called the police at 8:45 p.m., reporting to report an intruder who was acting strangely. The police own statement was that they did not come immediately because Cukor did not call on the emergency number. Considering the number of burglaries and assaults, they should have sent an officer immediately. Most citizens do not have the training to know the dangers. His death is proof of his lack of law enforcement knowledge. I stand by my original statement.

  • guest

    Truth Sayer’s thread has exposed a significant issue with the deal reportedly reached between the Cukor family and BPD.

    Having previously said that Cukor reported that “a deranged man was on his property” Truth Sayer changed the wording, saying that Cukor called BPD,

    “…to report an intruder who was acting strangely.”

    This is more accurate. Most people would not understand “acting strangely” and “deranged” to describe the same behavior.

    Truth Sayer then says,

    “The police own statement was that they did not come immediately because Cukor did not call on the emergency number.”

    We were told by all of the BPD speakers at the meeting held in the aftermath of the killing
    that calls to the emergency number and the non-emergency number go to the same place and are handled by the same call takers. Their statements directly contradict Truth Sayer’s.

    Ironically, the deal that ends the Cukor lawsuit that stemmed from these events is at odds with BPD
    stated practice and potentially increases rather than lessens danger in a significant sense.

    According to Henry K. Lee’s report today in the SF Chronicle,

    “…dispatchers can tell callers that officers may be delayed “due to high-priority calls in progress or the current volume of calls,” said the Cukor family’s attorney, R. Lewis Van Blois.

    If callers ask when an officer will arrive, dispatchers can respond that “there are too many variables” to say, Van Blois said.

    If callers feel threatened, dispatchers can tell them to call 911 immediately, the attorney said.”

    BPD SHOULD NEVER HAVE AGREED to have dispatchers tell callers who “feel threatened” to make a second call. Why is that second call required in the face of a perceived threat when the second call will go to the exact same place? Does this not increase any danger to the caller?