The home where Peter Cukor lived, off Park Hills in Berkeley, is largely concealed behind foliage and a wall. Photos: Tracey Taylor

Berkeley police have reviewed the agency’s actions on the night Peter Cukor was murdered and do not believe they took any missteps, Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan said Thursday.

But media reports have created the inaccurate impression that police ignored an emergency call from Cukor because they were too busy monitoring an Occupy march.

That was the message that Chief Meehan and some of his top staff delivered to Berkeleyside on Thursday afternoon in a wide-ranging interview that lasted more than an hour.

Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan

“We looked at everything and it doesn’t add up to a mistake,” said Lt. Andrew Greenwood, who attended the meeting along with Chief Meehan and Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, the BPD’s public information officer. “It was a horrible and tragic set of coincidental circumstances.”

“We have done a lot of “what if-ing,” said Chief Meehan. “This has hit hard. A number of officers are friends with the children. It has been very difficult.”

The review included analyzing the way the two Feb. 18 calls from the Cukor household were handled and comparing their dispatch and prioritization with the protocols of the Oakland Police Department, the San Francisco Police Department, the California Highway Patrol, and other agencies.

“We found we’re not inconsistent with what the police world is doing,” said Chief Meehan.

The heart of the controversy, which has promoted a number of city councilmembers to call for a community meeting on March 8, is how police responded to Cukor’s first call.

Cukor, 67, a business management consultant, returned with his wife to their home at 2 Park Gate, up at the top of the Berkeley Hills near Grizzly Peak Boulevard, around 8:45 pm on Feb 18. The couple spotted a man hanging out by their garage and told him to leave. At 8:47 pm, Cukor called the police non-emergency number and calmly told dispatch there was a trespasser on his property, according to police.

20-minute response goal

Since Cukor was not reporting a crime-in-progress or a life-threatening emergency, police ranked the call Priority 2. The police try to respond to these types of calls within 20 minutes, according to Lt. Greenwood. Berkeley police get about 10 of these calls a day and queue them up in order of urgency.

In fact, there were at least two other Priority 2 calls on Beat Two that night that had come in before Cukor’s call, said Lt. Greenwood. One was a fire and the other was another “suspicious circumstance,” call, he said.

At the time of Cukor’s first call, police had decided to only respond to Priority 1 calls. It was shift change, and police were about to start a briefing on an Occupy march that was supposed to make its way from Oakland to UC Berkeley. Police brass wanted to inform the patrol officers and sergeants about the march and the police’s mission in monitoring it.

Lt. Andrew Greenwood. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

“It’s really important that we have a briefing,” said Lt. Greenwood. “We wouldn’t just say (on the radio) ‘Okay officers on Team 6 get ready for a march to come into Berkeley, it’s going to do this.’ We gather in a room, we look at the route, we talk about what’s known, we talk about what our mission is going to be, and what’s going to happen. So that’s the purpose of the briefing.”

News reports have suggested that because of this focus on the Occupy march there were not sufficient resources out on the street. This is not true, said Chief Meehan. But it did mean police were not responding to Priority 2 calls.

At 8:59 pm, an officer who was on patrol on Cedar Street near Shattuck Avenue called into dispatch to ask if he should respond to any of the Priority 2 calls. He was told not to, because police were only responding at that time to Priority 1 calls. But even if he had been sent to respond to one of the calls, it might not have been to Cukor’s house, since the officer was much closer to the other suspicious circumstance call that had come in before Cukor’s call, said Chief Meehan. He was about two miles away from the Cukor residence. It is only in hindsight that people saw that Cukor’s call was more urgent.

“The officer didn’t say ‘I see this call at 2 Park Gate, I’d like to go to it,” said Chief Meehan. “The officer says, ‘hey, I’m available, I see a whole slew of holding calls, one being a fire, would you like me to go to the fire or would you like me to go to one of these suspicious circumstance calls?’ One of those suspicious circumstance calls had come in minutes before the 2 Park Gate and was one block from where the officer was, approximately one block away. I can’t say where the dispatcher would have sent him, but it wouldn’t have been out of bounds of reality or reason to send him to something that was only a block away, which was also a Priority 2 suspicious case.”

Sense that police were indifferent

But the fact that this officer offered to respond to one of the Priority 2 calls and was told not to has created a sense that Berkeley police were indifferent, police contend.

It leaves “the impression that BPD stood idly by for 13 minutes while an emergency call was out there,” said Lt. Greenwood. “And that an officer, seeing an emergency call, offered to take it and was told no, don’t take it, we’re not dispatching because of Occupy. That is the way people read the Chronicle coverage and it got repeated over and over and over the next 72 hours. So it’s got factual pieces to it, but they are structured in a fallible way.”

At 9:01, two minutes after the Berkeley police officer inquired whether he should respond to one of the “suspicious circumstances,” calls, Andrea Cukor called 911 to report that the trespasser was bludgeoning her husband with a ceramic planter. Berkeley police immediately responded to the Cukor house and arrived there at 9:08 pm, according to Sgt. Kusmiss. Cukor died later that night at Highland Hospital.

At 9:22 pm, police arrested 23-year old Daniel Jordan Dewitt, who was covered in blood and was wandering a few blocks from the Cukors’ residence. Dewitt, who has a long history of schizophrenia, has been charged with murder but legal proceedings have been suspended while he undergoes a psychiatric evaluation. DeWitt had told Cukor he had to come onto his property because he was looking for “Zoey,” according to court documents. Dewitt’s family has said “Zoey” is an imaginary girlfriend.

City Councilmember Susan Wengraf, who attended a Park Hills community meeting with Chief Meehan on Wednesday night, and is organizing the March 8 meeting, said the calm tone of Cukor’s first call made police think there was not an emergency. When the 911 call came in, police responded within minutes — even though officers were also dealing with the Occupy march.

“It was a confluence of decisions that led up to this horrible ending,” said Wengraf. “Everybody is very saddened by it and frustrated by it, but I think police did what they did based on how the first call came through. The first call was very factual. It was not described as a home intrusion and there was no sense of urgency in the first call.”

Christine Daniel, the interim city manager, reviewed the calls, said Wengraf, along with Chief Meehan. Berkeley police have declined to release tapes or transcripts of the Cukors’ calls because they may be evidence in any upcoming trial.

Call would not have been handled differently

Even if Cukor had originally called 911, Berkeley police would not have handled this call differently since there did not appear to be a crime in progress or a life-threatening situation, said Chief Meehan. It doesn’t really matter what number someone uses to call the police because dispatchers are trained to ask questions and assess the urgency of any call.

“There is a misconception that if you call 911 the person will send the police and if you call on the non-emergency line they won’t send the police,” said Lt. Greenwood. “When people call 911 or non-emergency in Berkeley, it’s going to the same room. The issue is what is being reported to the dispatcher. They are trained to assess what’s being told and to categorize it as a type of call for service.”

Added Chief Meehan: “It’s incredibly unfair to this family to leave an impression out there that implies that because they called one number or another number somehow they didn’t get service and this would have been different. That’s absolutely, completely false… It’s very unfair to that family to imply that they did something wrong.”

Councilmember calls public meeting after Berkeley murder [02.29.12]
Murder suspect trial delayed for psychological assessment [02.24.12]
Murder suspect was looking for fictional girlfriend [02.23.12]
Councilmember: unanswered questions over murder [02.23.12]
Alleged killer had been in and out of mental institutions [02.21.12]
Berkeley hills neighbors react with shock to brutal murder [02.20.12]
Intruder assaults, kills homeowner on Grizzly Peak [02.19.12]

Avatar photo

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...