Henry K. Lee, 05/28/12
When Michael Meehan took over as Berkeley’s police chief in 2009, he promised to be open and transparent. He immediately came clean, saying he had already gotten two parking tickets – in front of the police station – but paid them because he was “guilty.” He also pledged that “when we mess up, we’ll ‘fess up.”
Meehan, 51, has been doing some of that lately, most notably apologizing for sending a sergeant to a reporter’s home after midnight in March to press for changes in a story about a slaying in the Berkeley hills.
But he’s also dug in his heels, defending his department’s response to that February homicide, and asserting that when a legion of officers – including him and drug task force officers, some of whom were on overtime – went looking for his son’s stolen cell phone, it wasn’t a case of preferential treatment.
Critics say the former Seattle police captain’s priorities seem misguided.
“I’m concerned that he is spending a lot of time trying to control the image of the Berkeley Police Department, and I wish he was able to be more involved in the substance of day-to-day operations,” said Andrea Prichett, founding member of Berkeley Copwatch, a police watchdog group.
Supporters acknowledge Meehan has made mistakes, but say he is learning from them.
“He knows what he’s doing, but there’s been a couple of things where his judgment has been brought into question. It’s unfortunate, but it’s part of the job,” said Brentwood Police Chief Mark Evenson, a former police captain in Seattle who worked alongside Meehan there. “I think he’s handled it the best he can, and I don’t think anybody can expect to become a Berkeley chief and not be scrutinized.”
The police rank and file have made it known that their leader’s actions have cast an unwelcome spotlight on the city.
“Chief Meehan’s indiscretions, which expose a pattern of serious flaws in judgment, have unfortunately caused the national media to focus on the city of Berkeley as the example of poor police decision-making,” said Rocky Lucia, an attorney representing the Berkeley Police Association. “The reputation of the Police Department has seriously suffered since Chief Meehan’s arrival.”
Meehan seemed to be a good fit for Berkeley. During his 23 years in Seattle, he worked in patrol, narcotics, violent crimes and vice and took part in the department’s efforts to win accreditation with a national commission. As a precinct commander, he was responsible for a part of the city roughly equal in size to Berkeley’s population.
Both cities are known for their liberal denizens and propensity for protest, and Meehan was among the Seattle police officials who dealt with unrest at the World Trade Organization conference in 1999.
In naming Meehan chief in Berkeley over 44 other candidates, then-City Manager Phil Kamlarz said Meehan “exhibits the highest professionalism, leadership skills and commitment to community-involved policing.” Meehan moved to Berkeley with his wife, Becky, and their sons, Adam, 15, and Andrew, 13, whom he affectionately calls the “A Team.”
Response to slaying
Meehan’s troubles began soon after Feb. 18, when Peter Cukor, 67, was bludgeoned to death outside his home, 15 minutes after he had called police to report an intruder on his Berkeley hills property.
No officers showed up before Cukor was killed because police were responding only to emergency calls while the department deployed officers to what turned out to be a small Occupy march. “Talk about a perfect storm,” a supervising police dispatcher wrote in a department e-mail.
The fallout was immediate. Meehan defended his officers at a community meeting and apologized for not having communicated to the public sooner about what had occurred.
But a reporter wrote in an online story that Meehan had apologized for a slow response to Cukor’s home. That prompted Meehan, who denied any delay, to send spokeswoman Sgt. Mary Kusmiss to the reporter’s Berkeley home after midnight after efforts to reach him by phone and e-mail failed.
Meehan also sent a flurry of e-mails to other reporters to complain about inaccuracies, city e-mails show. “I am sure we are all sensitive to how things incorrectly reported may be perceived by Mr. Cukor’s family and friends,” he wrote one reporter.
Meehan apologized for his actions and made a round of calls to reporters, including the one who was visited by Kusmiss.
A San Francisco law firm’s investigation of that incident was recently completed at a cost of $15,000, and “appropriate action has been taken,” said interim City Manager Christine Daniel. She declined to release the report or describe the city’s response because of state law making police disciplinary matters confidential.
A separate review of the department’s media policies, which will cost the city as much as $24,000, had begun even before the department acknowledged this month that Meehan and a group of officers had looked for a stolen iPhone belonging to Adam Meehan in January.
‘I listen to criticism’
In an interview, Meehan denied that his son had received special treatment.
“It’s not unusual for us to respond to a live-track of stolen property in Berkeley with the resources that we had available at the time,” Meehan said. “In this case, my son was the victim of a crime.”
As far as the other controversies, he said, “I listen to criticism. I value and appreciate a diversity of opinions and viewpoints.” He added, “I remain focused on serving our community.”
Members of the City Council and Mayor Tom Bates have largely kept quiet about Meehan, noting that the chief answers to Daniel. But Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, who represents the neighborhood where Cukor was killed, said she is reserving judgment until she learns more about Meehan’s thinking.
“I don’t understand what’s going on inside the Police Department,” she said. “Something is obviously going on, and that is something I’m concerned with.”
She added, “I’m wondering how many other incidents are there that have not yet surfaced.”