Chief Michael Meehan, and Officer Byron White at community meeting on Cukor incident. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Update 2:10 pm: Statement from Berkeley Police Association added below.

A contrite Berkeley police chief spent Saturday afternoon fielding calls from the media to explain why he ordered a sergeant to go the house of a reporter at 12:45 a.m. on Friday to ask for changes in an article the chief thought was inaccurate.

Chief Michael Meehan profusely apologized for his actions, but declined to provide specifics about the incident.

“I was in the wrong,” Chief Meehan said. “It could have, and should have waited until the morning. It was a significant error of judgment on my part.”

To regain the trust of the press, Chief Meehan will order “an independent review of the Department’s policies and practices regarding release of information to the media,” he said in a statement. He wants the Berkeley Police Department to look at the best media policies of other police departments around the country and adopt them.

There are no indications that Chief Meehan’s boss, Interim City Manager Christine Daniel, intends to review Chief Meehan’s actions, despite the media storm that has descended on Berkeley – which, ironically, is known as the home of the Free Speech Movement.

“The Police Chief has apologized directly to the reporter involved and expressed his sincere regret for his actions on Thursday night…. The Chief has acknowledged his lapse in judgment and assured me that nothing like this will happen again,” Daniel said in a statement.

Chief Meehan said he does not know if his job is in jeopardy. Dozens of commentators on Berkeleyside have called for Chief Meehan’s resignation.

“It is not my decision,” he said. “My commitment to this community is deep. My commitment to the department is deep. As a human being I will certainly make mistakes – and this was not a small one – but I will admit to my mistakes.”

The Berkeley Police Association, which represents about 160 officers up to the rank of captain, released a statement Sunday afternoon about the incident.

“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. We are committed to providing the best possible service to the community, and protecting the Constitutional rights of the citizens of Berkeley to whom we ultimately answer. We do not believe that the actions taken by Chief Meehan represent the will, spirit, or sentiment of the membership of the Berkeley Police Association.”

It is ironic that Chief Meehan is facing so much negative scrutiny only days after he delivered a report to the City Council showing a big decrease in violent crime and hours after he assuaged a crowd that had gathered Thursday at the Northbrae Community Church to get answers on why Peter Cukor, a 67-year old hills resident, was murdered on Feb. 18. The beginning of the meeting was tense, but when it ended an hour an a half later, most of those who attended were satisfied with Chief Meehan’s explanation of the police response and convinced he was trying to improve the police department.

It was the story that Oakland Tribune reporter Doug Oakley wrote about the meeting that started this chain of events. Oakley interpreted Chief Meehan’s remarks as an apology for the way Berkeley police had responded to the crime.

When Chief Meehan read the Tribune story online after 11 pm, he got upset. He thought the article was inaccurate because he had apologized for how the police got out information about the murder, not the way the department responded. Meehan emailed and called Oakley to ask for a correction, but could not reach him.

Sgt. Mary Kusmiss. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Chief Meehan then ordered Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, the department’s public information officer, to go Oakley’s home. She knocked on the door at 12:45 am, waking up Oakley and his wife. Oakley agreed to the changes, but explained that they needed to wait until the morning when a Tribune editor came on duty.

At 7 am, Chief Meehan called Oakley again, saying he had not seen a new version of the story online yet, said Oakley. The chief kept pressing Oakley for more changes in phone calls and emails that morning, leading Oakley to feel “intimidated.”

When other reporters from the Oakland Tribune started to call the police department later that morning, Chief Meehan realized his error, he said. He informed Daniel and other city officials some time on Friday of his actions, he said. The Tribune article about the incident went online around 9 pm.

Numerous questions remain about the incident, and Meehan declined to talk about them, or could not answer them on Saturday afternoon. They include:

1) How did Sgt. Mary Kusmiss obtain Oakley’s home address? While there are public methods available to find addresses – and Oakley has said he is listed in the phone book – police often use DMV records to find addresses. But DMV records can only be used for legitimate police needs. Chief Meehan said he assumed that Sgt. Kusmiss knew where Oakley lived, since he knows where the reporter lives.

2) Did Sgt. Kusmiss, the police department’s public information officer, advise her boss away from this course of action? Chief Meehan declined to discuss their conversations. “Mary was doing what  I asked her to do,” he said. “But it was late and I don’t remember the specific wording at all. It was a fairly quick call.”

3) Was it a proper use of police funds to send Sgt. Kusmiss out on the street at 12:45 am? Sgt. Kusmiss’s hours are normally 9 am to 7 pm, although she is often called in on off hours during high profile crimes. Chief Meehan said he had assumed Sgt. Kusmiss was at home around midnight on March 8, when he first started to look for her to get Oakley’s phone number. But when he called her cell phone, he found her still at police headquarters, he said.

4) Was Sgt. Kusmiss wearing a police uniform when she came to Oakley’s door? Was she armed? Chief Meehan did not know the answer to this question, although Sgt. Kusmiss does not usually wear a uniform, he said. She mostly dresses in civilian clothes and wears a small police badge on her lapel or sweater.

“I wish I would have given in more thought that evening,” said Chief Meehan. “I tend to be a go-go person. I should have relaxed, taken a deep breath, and said this should wait until the next morning… I am completely and totally in the wrong.”

At 12:45 am police chief demands reporter make changes [03.10.12]
Community gathers in wake of murder: quizzes Berkeley police [03.09.12]

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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...