Henry K. Lee, 03/17/12
A month after a Berkeley hills resident was bludgeoned to death outside his home, the city is in an uproar over not only the slaying, but also the police chief’s decision to send an officer to a reporter’s home after midnight to push for changes in a story about his department’s response to the slaying.
The killing of Peter Cukor, 67, has led to recriminations far beyond the original crime. On Friday, city officials said they had hired an outside law firm to investigate why Police Chief Michael Meehan sent his public information officer to the reporter’s door, raising the possibility of disciplinary action against the city’s top cop.
The public information officer, meanwhile, has taken the unusual step of hiring an attorney to speak for her, after the chief was quoted as saying she had tracked down the reporter on her own. The lawyer said Friday that the chief had provided the address.
Meehan, who arrived in Berkeley from the Seattle Police Department more than two years ago with pledges of transparency, has also incurred the wrath of the union that represents his 160 officers. It said Friday that the city was going easy on Meehan for actions that would have gotten a rank-and-file officer put on leave.
Interim City Manager Christine Daniel issued a statement confirming the independent investigation shortly after the police union called for an outside probe.
‘Error in judgment’
Meehan has apologized for what he has described as an “error in judgment.” But that’s not enough, because any officer under his command who did what the chief did would have to undergo a formal inquiry and be put on paid leave, leading to possible disciplinary action, said Rocky Lucia, an attorney for the Berkeley Police Association.
“It is appalling that the city of Berkeley has seen fit to simply allow this incident to slide into a media graveyard without further examination or review,” Lucia wrote in a letter to Daniel.
The attorney said Meehan may have violated department policies, including those requiring officers to be courteous and not to engage in supervisory misconduct.
Meehan did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
Daniel said Renne Sloan Holtzman Sakai, a San Francisco law firm headed in part by Louise Renne, a former San Francisco supervisor and city attorney, was hired Monday to investigate Meehan’s actions.
“That process will be conducted to its conclusion,” said Daniel, who did not elaborate.
The controversy erupted after Meehan ordered police Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, 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. March 9 after efforts to reach the journalist by phone and e-mail failed.
About an hour earlier, Oakley had posted an online story about a raucous community meeting Meehan had attended that evening. The story reported that Meehan had apologized for the department’s slow response to a Feb. 18 call from Cukor about an intruder in his garage. Cukor was beaten to death a few minutes later.
The report upset Meehan, who said he had never apologized for a slow response – which he has steadfastly denied – but instead had said he was sorry he failed to release information quickly to the public about the slaying.
Oakley said he had suffered a panic attack after he and his wife were awakened by Kusmiss, who was armed and in civilian clothes.
Kusmiss, who reports directly to the chief, has been put in a difficult position, said her attorney, Alison Berry Wilkinson.
The website Berkeleyside quoted Meehan last weekend as saying he hadn’t given Oakley’s address to Kusmiss. Kusmiss, however, says he did, according to Wilkinson.
“She did everything in her power not to show up on the reporter’s doorstep,” Wilkinson said.
Kusmiss retained Wilkinson the weekend after the incident, the attorney said. Lucia, the union’s lawyer, says she was smart to do so.
“There are too many allegations swirling around for her not to be represented by competent counsel,” Lucia said. “This incident has raised potentially numerous department violations, and she’s in the middle of it – but we don’t think for a minute that she has violated any department policy. She’s clean on this.”