More than six years after taking the helm of the Berkeley Police Department, Chief Michael Meehan is facing serious criticism from within his own ranks, according to two internal emails he sent to employees earlier this month and numerous interviews with BPD staffers.
The criticisms focus on weak leadership, low morale, insufficient staffing and inconsistent communication. They were spelled out in surveys from 134 people, just over half the department, that included nearly 80 pages of written comments. Much of that focused on the chief.
“That direct feedback tells me that I am failing some members of this organization,” Meehan wrote in an Aug. 11 email to BPD employees. “That is unacceptable.”
The comments are “a strong wake-up call” about what many characterized as a “lack of leadership and clear vision for our agency,” the chief wrote. He sent the email, entitled “Priorities and Commitment,” at about 10:10 p.m. after two long days of involved discussions with his leadership team.
The survey responses reportedly included scathing critiques of Meehan’s leadership style, along with other frustrations faced by the rank and file. The results have not been made public — and Meehan says they won’t be — but the chief’s email messages about those responses offer a rare glimpse into the department’s inner workings.
Morale inside the department has sunk to what may be an all-time low, some officers have told Berkeleyside, and that stems largely from what many have said is the failure of the chief to advocate effectively for what his officers want. Berkeleyside has granted those officers anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on behalf of the department.
The chief’s emails were also shared with Berkeleyside by a BPD staffer on condition of anonymity. Meehan provided additional context regarding the messages, as well as staff concerns, during a lengthy conversation with Berkeleyside on Monday night.
In his remarks to Berkeleyside, the chief described the survey feedback as “a motivator” he says will drive him to improve. He offered insights on his view of department staffing, and described a range of efforts undertaken under his watch that he believes have made BPD a leader across a number of important areas, from training to recognize implicit biases to efforts to equip all officers with crisis intervention and de-escalation skills.
“Any leader, if they’re always listening and paying attention and trying to do better, it’s a pretty good start,” he said.
Over the years, officers have expressed frustration to Berkeleyside about a variety of issues related to the chief. Many are longtime employees who say the gripes go beyond the typical tensions between leadership and those on the ground.
Many have said Meehan focuses much more energy on his relationships outside the department than on those within it. He can seem disconnected during conversations, non-responsive in his answers and frustrating in his approach to decision-making, according to the complaints.
It is also true, however, that this is among the most politically and emotionally challenging times in recent decades to work in policing.
Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates said, from an external standpoint, Meehan has been an exemplary leader.
“I think Chief Meehan has built excellent community relations between the police department and the overall Berkeley community,” he said. Bates described Meehan as engaged and involved with the public and credited him with helping to create the Martin Luther King Jr. community breakfast in 2012. Bates said he is also pleased to see Meehan pushing forward on a pilot program to fund body cameras for officers in Berkeley.
In recent years, BPD has managed to avoid many of the more significant scandals that have plagued nearby law enforcement agencies and those in other parts of the country as well. The department has not had an officer-involved shooting since 2012, and reports what it says is a comparatively low number of external complaints related to officer behavior.
Meehan has also been chief for more than six years during a period in which there has been high turnover of chiefs in nearby cities. Oakland, for example, has gone through six police chiefs since 2010. That department is now being overseen by the city administrator. San Francisco has had three police chiefs in that period. Monday, Hayward’s police chief was placed on sudden leave by her city manager in relation to a personnel matter.
And there has been criticism of BPD from some external quarters over the years. Meehan made headlines in 2012 when he sent 10 officers to Oakland to find his son’s stolen cellphone and, two months later, sent a sergeant to a reporter’s home in the middle of the night to ask for changes to a news story. He has also been grilled publicly in connection with dispatching decisions during the brutal murder of Peter Cukor in the Berkeley Hills, the in-custody death of Kayla Moore in 2013, and the tear-gassing of protesters during Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2014.
Internal survey prompts “tough responses” from BPD staff
In May, as part of an effort to create a strategic plan for BPD, Meehan sent out, through a third-party consultant, a 14-question survey to his staff. Employees were asked, among other questions, if they felt they had a clear understanding of department priorities, what they saw as the most pressing public safety issues in Berkeley, what could be done to increase the public trust, and what they believed to be the agency’s biggest challenges. The answers were anonymous.
As the months wore on, some wondered when they would hear back from the chief about the feedback they had shared. They finally got their answer in August. On Tuesday, Aug. 9, at about 5:15 p.m., Meehan sent a brief message to employees to let them know he had, in fact, received the survey results.
“I want to assure each of you, as tough as some of the responses were to read, I plan to turn this difficulty into increased awareness and understanding about our department,” he wrote.
Meehan announced that he and his leadership team would immediately take two days away to brainstorm about how to address the issues that had been raised. At times, one attendee said, those discussions were heated. They involved passionate debates about how best to move forward.
The chief’s next email, sent Thursday, Aug. 11, after the off-site sessions concluded, laid out Meehan’s initial plan for how to do that.
He promised, among other things, to share more information internally, make decisions faster, make his expectations clearer, and spend more time with officers and in the field. To that end, he told Berkeleyside this week, he has attended briefings for all of his teams, and went on a ride-along on a recent weekend with one of his officers. And he said he plans to continue those efforts.
(One member of the department told Berkeleyside, however, that the chief was initially unable to log into the computer system in the police cruiser during his patrol shift because he had never before done so. He has worked for the city since December 2009.)
“You expect and deserve more of my time and attention and you will get it,” he wrote in the Aug. 11 email. “I care about the health of our entire department and recognize the need for action. It is my responsibility to give clear direction about my vision, build trust throughout our organization, and support each of you as you carry out our shared mission.”
His external goals included crime prevention and reduction, and building community trust. Internally, he wrote, he wants to provide more chances for training and development, and continue to build “an engaged and cohesive agency.”
Meehan’s plan includes a push to maintain staffing levels, which have been the subject of significant officer concern for years; a move to reduce the size of police beats, after a plan was adopted about 18 months ago that made the beats larger; and an effort to allow and encourage the community to file more reports online rather than in person, should they so choose.
Regarding the move from 14 to 16 beats, he wrote, “We can’t just throw a switch; there’s work involved but we will fast-track this project to the best of our abilities and available resources with the goal of completing the transition by the end of 2016.”
Meehan also said he’d launch a pilot program to give officers the option of temporary 1-2 week assignments in special units such as robbery, sex crimes and the traffic division, and — in response to complaints about New World, the clunky and sometimes unreliable computer system in patrol vehicles — said BPD would “explore the option” of letting officers hand-write the narrative part of their reports to “reduce the amount of keyboarding needed in your car.”
The memo also referenced challenges faced by the department’s dispatchers. The dispatch center has for years been understaffed, meaning dispatchers can be forced to work 15-20 hours of mandatory overtime each week, according to one employee. At the time of his memo, Meehan said the department is authorized to hire 28 dispatchers but had just 24 on staff. As of last week, one of those dispatchers had reportedly left or will leave for another agency.
Meehan said Monday night he could not confirm the exact mandatory overtime figure, but said it has been very difficult to get adequate staffing in the dispatch center for quite some time, even before he came on board.
“It has always been a huge challenge,” he said. “It’s hard to recruit qualified dispatchers who can make it through our training program.”
One employee told Berkeleyside that, earlier in August, the department lost both a dispatch trainee and an officer trainee who were unable to complete BPD’s training program.
Some have said that, though the agency has been trying to hire up to its authorized total of 176 sworn officers, it just hasn’t been able to keep pace. As recently as 2014, the department only received enough money from the city to hire 171 officers, despite its “authorized” number of 176. At times, injuries, sickness, leave, training and other factors have meant the actual number of available officers on the timesheet has fallen down into the 150s. And many officers have left for other departments, too. A certain amount of “churn” is natural in any organization, but some feel it’s beyond the norm at BPD.
“I’ve never in my career seen this many people either leaving for other places or having applications out in other places,” said one longtime BPD employee. “It does speak to morale across the profession. But we’re blessed with our own special set of problems [in Berkeley] that exacerbate the problem.”
Unlike many other agencies, officers in Berkeley don’t have Tasers or police dogs. As of earlier this year, there’s no longer a Drug Task Force, which reduced the number of special assignments available to police. Unlike other agencies, many of which have embraced social media as a way to promote department wins, particularly in the face of increasing scrutiny and criticism nationally, BPD has been mostly mum online. The agency has minimally used Twitter but is otherwise not involved with social media, though sources say this is not entirely the department’s fault. (Meehan himself, however, has an active Twitter feed.)
Officers have complained that, though Meehan has spoken publicly in favor of tools like Tasers and a more proactive and transparent approach to social media, he does not push hard enough to turn those ideas into a reality.
The staffing issues are, at least in part, the result of the city’s approach to budgeting and hiring — no full-time BPD recruiter, no continuous hiring process and no extension of conditional offers, which are approaches used by other agencies to attract applicants — as well as what’s been reported as an overall plunge in candidates who want to work in law enforcement in recent years. A typical applicant pool in Berkeley used to be 1,200 to 1,500 applicants. It is now down to 200 or 300.
The department describes its officers as highly educated and highly focused on customer service, and the chief has often described BPD’s hiring process as more selective than Harvard. They count lawyers, artists, nurses, accountants and a psychologist among their ranks.
But some officers also say poor planning over the years and a failure to stay on top of hiring — and to offer ample advancement opportunities to women and minorities — has contributed to what they see as a problem that may have gotten too large to solve.
Record numbers of female officers are reportedly leaving the department this year, which could put a dent in BPD’s proud record of diversity and inclusiveness. Last year, the New York Times identified BPD as being among the most racially representative departments in the country, according to 2007 data. It was unclear as of publication time, however, how staffing changes since 2007 may have impacted those results.
According to Meehan’s Aug. 11 email, the department expects to lose another 6-8 positions to retirement and resignation by year’s end. He noted, however, that five new recruits would be starting at the police academy Aug. 30, and that a third round of recruitment is in the works for 2016.
“More communication, better communication”
Meehan has a different take on the staffing numbers. He told Berkeleyside this week he believes he is operating with 97% or 98% of his authorized employees. And, while that doesn’t take into account people who are out due to training, vacation, injuries or other factors, he said that gap is one that has always existed.
Meehan said he would love to see more officers out on foot and bike patrol through the neighborhoods, but that answering emergency calls is his No. 1 priority, particularly when resources are limited.
“There’s no science behind police staffing,” he said, no accepted ratio of officers to a city’s overall population. Meehan said officers who remember the size of the department 15 years ago are bound to take issue with the size of the current force. He noted, too, that the overall number of approved officers has not dropped in five years. “It’s not good enough for some folks: I totally understand.”
He said he has struggled to communicate internally about many of the accomplishments he is proudest of at BPD: the overall downward trend in serious crime reports over the years; the department’s approach to fair and impartial policing to counter implicit bias; a new criminal justice class launching this year at Berkeley High; and his officers’ focus on customer service, de-escalation tactics and crisis intervention training.
Meehan describes the department as “years ahead nationally” in terms of training related to implicit bias that has only recently become part of the broader conversation. And every member of the department has received that training, he said. The department was the first in the state to sign up to turn over its car and pedestrian stop data for analysis related to racial disparities, he added. It was also the first or among the first, he said, to publish that stop data online “for everyone to see.”
“Not every officer necessarily agrees with that approach,” Meehan said. “I think that is the right thing to do and I am very proud of that.”
He said it’s possible, however, that all of these efforts may have left officers feeling that there’s a lack of focus. There may also be unrealistic expectations within the department, he said, about how quickly changes can be made: “You can’t just say yes to everything.”
Meehan has pledged to provide more and better communication internally to try to offer the clarity he feels his staff has requested. He said he hopes to complete the strategic plan by the end of the year after also surveying the public about what it wants to see from BPD.
Above all, Meehan said, he’s taking the survey results as an opportunity to grow.
“It was very much a motivator for me,” he said. “I’m just naturally an optimistic person. I don’t hang my head and complain.… I just feel like: How can I do better?”
He continued: “Enough employees feel like I can improve. That’s exactly what I’m going to try to do.”
City manager Dee Williams-Ridley said Wednesday she has recently returned from vacation and plans to review the survey results soon.
“It’s very important for the department to embark on a strategic plan so we more effectively address the needs of the community and the department,” she said. “I’ll work with the Chief and the department on a plan of action to address any challenges identified in the survey.”
Berkeleyside welcomes news tips from readers. Reach reporter Emilie Raguso by email or by phone at 510-459-8325. Tipsters can remain anonymous.
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