A reporter interviews Chief Michael Meehan before Thursday’s community meeting on the murder of Peter Cukor. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
A reporter interviews Chief Michael Meehan before Thursday’s community meeting on the murder of Peter Cukor. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Update 2:30 pm. City officials respond to incident:

Statement from Interim City Manager Christine Daniel:

I take this situation very seriously. We understand and appreciate the depth of response to this incident.  The value of the free press in our society is fundamental to who we are as a people. Our organization deeply values our relationship with the media, and individual reporters, and we know that our community depends on the media for information about important events in Berkeley.

The Police Chief has apologized directly to the reporter involved and expressed his sincere regret for his actions on Thursday night.  There was no justification for contacting the reporter in this way and the Chief understands that the more appropriate response to his concerns about inaccurate statements in the article should have been to wait until the following day and make contact by phone or email. The Chief has acknowledged his lapse in judgment and assured me that nothing like this will happen again.

The Berkeley Police Department looks forward to focusing its efforts moving forward on restoring the trust of the press and ensuring that the media has more timely and accurate information about events in Berkeley.  To facilitate that, the Chief is planning an independent review of the Department’s policies and practices regarding timely releases of information.  When that review is completed, a report will be provided to the City Council and the community.

Statement from Police Chief Michael K. Meehan

I sincerely apologize for my actions on Thursday night.  The Berkeley Police Department has a good, productive working relationship with the Oakland Tribune and its reporters. 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.  My actions do not reflect the values of the Berkeley Police Department. I deeply appreciate the importance of an independent and thoroughly informed media, and how they assist us in making our community aware of important events and information.  I am committed to ensuring that the Police Department continues to have a trusting and professional working relationship with the press and to make sure that happens, I am planning for an independent review of the Department’s policies and practices regarding release of information to the media.

Original story: Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan sent his public information officer to an Oakland Tribune reporter’s house in the middle of the night on Friday to push for changes in a story that Meehan thought was inaccurate.

Chief Meehan then twice called the reporter, Doug Oakley, and sent him numerous follow up emails urging him to alter wording in the story about a community meeting called to examine Berkeley police response to the Feb. 18. murder of Peter Cukor.

The 12:45 am visit by Sgt. Mary Kusmiss on March 9 and subsequent police demands have left Oakley disturbed and shaken.

“I haven’t slept in 24 hours,” said Oakley, who lives in Berkeley and has written about the city for six years. “It was really intimidating.”

Chief Meehan could not be reached for comment Saturday. He told other reporters at the Oakland Tribune that he “could have done better.”

“I would say it was an overzealous attempt to make sure that accurate information is put out,” Meehan told reporters Kristin Bender and Thomas Peele. “I did not mean to upset (Oakley) or his family last night; it was late, (I was) tired, too. I don’t dispute that it could be perceived badly.”

City councilmember Laurie Capitelli, who, along with councilmember Susan Wengraf, convened the Thursday meeting at the Northbrae Community Church to discuss the slaying of Cukor, said Chief Meehan’s actions seem out of line.

“If the facts are how they appear, it is inappropriate and the chief is overreacting,” said Capitelli. “The chief is hyper-sensitive to errors made in the papers early on, the stories about the homicide …. Sending Mary to somebody’s front door after midnight is inappropriate.”

Capitelli said at this point he does not have any plans to ask Meehan’s boss, Interim City Manager Christine Daniel, to look into the matter.

Jim Ewert, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publisher’s Association, told the Tribune that Meehan’s actions were “despicable, totally despicable. It’s the most intimidating type of (censorship) possible because the person trying to exercise it carries a gun.”

“This was an official act and it was grossly improper and it calls into question (Meehan’s) judgement and his understanding of the role of police in society,” said Peter Sussman, a former president of the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists who has long been involved with First Amendment issues. “It is a serious infraction of privacy, if nothing else. When it’s done under the cover of authority it does become state intimidation.”

Oaklant Tribune reporter Doug Oakley

In the community meeting, Chief Meehan complained about inaccurate media reports about the killing, particularly the question of whether a Berkeley police officer offered to go to the Cukor’s house before the 911 call came in, but was told not to, and whether police delayed a response because officers were focusing on an Occupy march.

Chief Meehan told the 200 people assembled at the church that he was to blame for not getting information out quickly enough to the community.

Oakley initially interpreted this as an apology for the way Berkeley police responded to the Cukor situation, he said. His story featured this apology prominently.

“I went to the meeting,” said Oakley. “I filed a story about 11 o’clock. The editor put it online. I went to bed. The next thing I know my wife is talking to me. I am half-asleep. She’s saying the Berkeley police are here. I say ‘what?’ At first I thought something really bad was happening or they were coming for me, like I was going to be arrested.’”

Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, whom Oakley knows well from his time at the Tribune, was standing at the door.

“She didn’t want to be here at all,” said Oakley. “She was really apologetic. She was told to go.”

Sgt. Kusmiss explained that Chief Meehan had seen Oakley’s story and thought he had gotten it wrong. Chief Meehan had apologized for not communicating well with the citizenry, but had not apologized for the police response, she told Oakley.

Chief Meehan had sent her because he could not get through to Oakley by email or cell phone, Sgt. Kusmiss told Oakley. The chief felt he could not wait until morning to get the mistake corrected because the Oakland Tribune has hundreds of thousands of readers, said Sgt. Kusmiss. Chief Meehan did not want bad information out there.

Oakley agreed to make the changes, but told Sgt. Kusmiss it could not happen until around 7 am when there was someone at the Tribune to do it, he said.

“At the moment I felt ‘I got something wrong in a really big story and I have to change it.’”

Sgt. Kusmiss left, but, starting at around 7:00 am, Chief Meehan continued to press for more changes to the story, said Oakley. He asked for a change to the headline and disputed another section in the story. Oakley declined to make any other changes, he said. But the chief’s persistence angered — and frightened — him.

“He doesn’t know when to stop,” said Oakley. “We both have a lot of power as a journalist and as police chief. We both have to respect that power but I think he really abused it.”

“What does that mean if the chief can send someone over to my house in the middle of the night?” said Oakley. “Who do you call when the police are after you?”

Community gathers in wake of murder: quizzes Berkeley police [03.09.12]

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 Created California, published in November...