Henry K. Lee, 03/12/12
The Berkeley police chief’s decision to send an officer to a reporter’s home after midnight Thursday met with more criticism Sunday, with the city’s rank-and-file officers saying they were “gravely concerned” about his actions.
Chief Michael Meehan has apologized for ordering the department’s public information officer to go to the Berkeley home of Bay Area News Group reporter Doug Oakley at 12:45 a.m. Friday after efforts to reach the journalist by phone and e-mail failed.
Oakley, 45, had written a story about a raucous community meeting Meehan attended Thursday. The story, which appeared online late that night, reported that Meehan had apologized for the department’s slow response in connection with the Feb. 18 slaying of Berkeley hills resident Peter Cukor by an intruder on his property.
The report upset Meehan, who said he never apologized for a slow response – which he has steadfastly denied – but instead had said he was sorry he had failed to quickly release information to the public about the slaying.
The chief’s decision to send Sgt. Mary Kusmiss to Oakley’s door has rankled many on his 160-member force. Many are privately grumbling that the former Seattle police captain is more worried about burnishing his image and spinning the story instead of responding to concerns about whether police staffing was adequate the night Cukor was killed.
“We, the members of the Berkeley Police Association, stand with our community and share in their concerns about the appearance and correctness of the chief’s orders, and are gravely concerned about the impact his actions will have on our ability to maintain the vital trust of the community we serve,” said Officer Tim Kaplan, president of the police union.
Reporter, family awakened
When Kusmiss knocked on Oakley’s door, the journalist, his wife and their two sons, ages 3 and 5, were asleep. Oakley, whose address is listed online, thought at first that something bad had happened to a relative.
Kusmiss, in civilian clothes, told Oakley that she was mortified to be at his home but said she was given a direct order to request he change his story, the reporter said. Oakley told her that no one could post an amended article until later that morning.
Oakley said after Kusmiss left, he began shaking and had a panic attack, wondering if Meehan “can do this whenever he’s mad at me, or send someone else who is not as sympathetic as Mary and threaten me.” After changes were made in the story about 7 a.m. Friday, Meehan e-mailed Oakley repeatedly with requests for more alterations, Oakley said.
Oakley said he has no plans to file a formal complaint or to sue.
In a statement, Meehan said, “I have apologized to the reporter personally and I take full responsibility for this error in judgment. I was frustrated with the department’s ability to get out timely information, but that is no excuse.”
Interim City Manager Christine Daniel said, “There was no justification for contacting the reporter in this way, and the chief understands that the more appropriate response to his concerns … should have been to wait until the following day and make contact by phone or e-mail. The chief has acknowledged his lapse in judgment and assured me that nothing like this will happen again.”
It was not known Sunday if Berkeley officials would probe the matter further.
Since Cukor’s killing Feb. 18, questions have been raised about why police did not respond more quickly to Cukor’s call on a nonemergency line about a trespasser.
Police radio tapes show that an officer had volunteered to investigate several nonemergency calls, including Cukor’s, but was told not to because patrol officers were responding only to emergency calls. At the time, a contingent of other officers was being deployed to monitor an Occupy protest march taking place that night.
Critics raise concerns
Harry Stern, an ex-Berkeley officer who serves as an attorney for the police union, said, “As a former cop … it troubles me that they have the resources to send an officer to bother a reporter at home in the middle of the night and apparently not respond to a crime in progress in a timely fashion.”
Some residents have called for the chief to resign, but Jim Chanin, a civil-rights attorney and former chair of the Berkeley Police Review Commission, said, “I think obviously he showed a serious lapse in judgment, and he admitted it, and the reporter in question accepted his apology. Given all those facts, I don’t think he should resign. I think it’s hopefully a lesson for him.”
But Peter Sussman, a Berkeley First Amendment advocate, questioned whether Meehan was “missing a police-chief gene,” saying, “If nothing else, it smacks of an extraordinary and unexpected blindness to the effect of wearing a uniform, especially in places like Berkeley. It is police intimidation, pure and simple, however he intended it.”