Thursday, March 15, 2012

Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan Should Not Resign

By Robert Gammon
Thu, Mar 15, 2012 at 11:53 AM

Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan screwed up when he sent police spokeswoman Mary Kusmiss to the home of Bay Area News Group reporter Doug Oakley late at night to correct a story that had been posted online. Meehan should have waited until the next morning to request the correction; he has acknowledged as much, and has apologized. And though his decision to dispatch Kusmiss to Oakley’s house at 12:45 a.m. was a mistake, the firestorm over his actions have been overblown and calls for him to resign have been off base.

Michael Meehan
  • Michael Meehan
What has been lost in the public dustup was that the reporter, Oakley, got his story wrong, and that Meehan had every right to demand it be corrected. Oakley’s error wasn’t trivial either. His story stated that Meehan had publicly apologized for the police department’s slow response to the killing of 67-year-old Peter Cukor outside his Berkeley hills home. But Meehan did no such thing. Instead, the police chief had apologized for not informing the public sooner about what had happened.

That’s a big difference, especially for the City of Berkeley. If the city’s police chief really had apologized and effectively admitted that the police department was culpable for Cukor’s death, it would have been a huge deal. Oakley’s paper, the Oakland Tribune, would have had a major scoop. Moreover, if Cukor’s family were thinking about suing the city, Meehan’s apology and admission of guilt would have been Exhibit A. It’s no wonder why Meehan was so concerned about getting the story corrected as soon as possible.

It’s also not at all clear whether Berkeley PD is culpable for Cukor’s death. On the night Cukor was killed, he had called the police department’s non-emergency number, reporting that a suspicious person was outside his home. A police officer reportedly was prepared to respond to the call, but didn’t go because the department was on alert for an Occupy protest and so was not responding at the time to non-emergency calls. But even if the officer had gone to Cukor’s place, there was no guarantee that he would have arrived in time to prevent Cukor from being bludgeoned to death by Daniel DeWitt, a man with a serious mental illness. The Chron has reported that only thirteen minutes elapsed between the time that Cukor called the non-emergency line and he was bludgeoned. And Cukor’s house on Grizzly Peak is a long drive from downtown Berkeley.

Moreover, police departments typically treat non-emergency calls as non-emergencies. That is, they don’t respond to them right away — certainly not in thirteen minutes. In fact, if Cukor had lived in Oakland, police may have never dispatched an officer. As such, the outcry from Berkeley hills residents about the department’s response that night is unreasonable. If wealthy residents want their police department to respond in less than thirteen minutes to every non-emergency call, then they’re going to need a much bigger police force, and they’re going to need to tax themselves a whole lot more.

The mock outrage by the Berkeley police union at Meehan’s actions also should be ignored. As Berkeleyside reported, the police union is currently in tough negotiations with Meehan and the city over a new contract. In addition, the police union has been angry with Meehan because of his success in curtailing costly police overtime. Meehan reforms, in fact, have saved Berkeley taxpayers plenty of money.

Berkeley police, under Meehan’s command, also have been a model for dealing with Occupy protests. Unlike Oakland and UC police, Berkeley has shown commendable restraint toward protesters. It’s no wonder that two liberal Berkeley councilmembers, Jesse Arreguin and Kriss Worthington, who are not afraid of criticizing police, want Meehan to remain chief.

As for Oakley, it’s understandable that he was unhappy about getting the late-night visit from a police sergeant. But the contention made by some that Meehan was attempting to intimidate a reporter is silly. For starters, Oakley, who has covered Berkeley for a long time, knows Kusmiss well. She showed up at his door in plain clothes, and she’s not what you would describe as an intimidating person. In addition, Oakley has acknowledged that Kusmiss told him she didn’t want to be there, nor did she threaten him in any way.

Mary Kusmiss
  • Mary Kusmiss
It’s also worth noting that Kusmiss called and emailed Oakley before going to his house, and he didn’t respond. The story in question had been posted online only a short time earlier, and Meehan wanted it corrected as soon as possible. There’s a good reason for that — once it got out there that Berkeley’s police chief had apologized for letting a man die, it’s hard to clear that from the public’s consciousness, even if it later turns out to be untrue.

As such, Meehan’s overreaction to the situation, as wrongheaded as it was, has made it crystal clear that he, in fact, never apologized for the department not immediately sending an officer to Cukor’s house.

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