The entrance to the house where Peter Cukor was attacked and killed. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Peter Cukor used his cell phone and what he had been told was an emergency number when he called Berkeley police to report that a strange man was lurking around his property, his family said at a press conference Friday.

Just about a week before Cukor was allegedly attacked and killed by 23-year old Daniel DeWitt, he received an email from a neighborhood group informing him to program 510-981-5911 into his cell phone to use during emergencies, according to R. Lewis Van Blois, an Oakland attorney representing the family. Cukor used that number at 8:45 pm on Feb. 18 to convey that he needed a police officer to help immediately, said Van Blois.

Berkeley police did not respond immediately to Cukor’s request for help because the dispatcher did not think there was a crime in progress or any threat to life. Cukor called on a non-emergency line and spoke in a calm voice, Berkeley police have repeatedly said.

“When you say there is a 6’4” intruder who won’t leave and is spacey,” that’s an emergency, said Van Blois. “If a dispatcher doesn’t think that’s an emergency and a potential home invasion, she should ask another question.”

The dispatcher rated Cukor’s call Priority 2 but did not immediately send an officer to his house at 2 Park Gate because the department was only responding to Priority 1 calls at the time. At 8:43 pm, just two minutes before Cukor’s call, Berkeley police had decided not to respond to Priority 2 calls because there was a shift change. Police brass needed to update officers about an Occupy Oakland march that was expected to come to Berkeley later that night.

An officer who had offered to respond to three outstanding Priority 2 calls just a few minutes before 9:00 pm was told not to, according to police documents. Just three minutes later, Andrea Cukor called 911 and informed police that DeWitt was allegedly attacking her husband with a planter.

“My father should be alive – and we hope steps will be taken to ensure that this can never happen to another citizen,” Christopher Cukor, 37, said at a press conference at Van Blois’ office. He was there with his wife Nina and brother Alexander Cukor, 34. (Berkeleyside was not there but was given a copy of his statement.)

Berkeley police never told the senior Cukor that there would be a lag in the response time, said his son. For this – and the fact that one officer was prevented from responding – they bear partial responsibility for his death, he said.

“I am aware that the police have stated that they made no ‘mistake’ in their response to my father’s call for help,” said Christopher Cukor. “We find this very disturbing – that a citizen’s call for emergency help can go unanswered and lead to his death is not a mistake? Surely something is terribly wrong – and other citizens should be deeply concerned. My father was not told that his call was ranked Priority 2 – he asked for ‘an officer up here right away’ because there was a ‘6’4″ intruder who says he lives here’. He ‘wants to come inside’ and ‘he’s pretty spacey’. My father saw a clear threat of an invasion of his home and asked for immediate help.”

The family has not yet decided if it will file a lawsuit against the police department, said Van Blois. But they are calling for some changes in how police communicate with people calling for help. The suggestions include:

  •  all emergency callers should immediately be told what Priority their call is being given
  •  callers should be given an approximate response time so they can take appropriate precautions to protect themselves during the time the police are not responding.
  • dispatchers should receive additional training to more accurately assess the nature of calls
  • shift changes and  briefing sessions must not impact emergency responses

Berkeley police have maintained that, even though they were holding a briefing to discuss the Occupy Oakland march, they were equipped to respond to all emergency calls.

DeWitt has been charged with murder, but an Alameda County Court Judge ruled he is incompetent to stand trial and has ordered him to be committed to Napa State Hospital until at least July. Dewitt was diagnosed with schizophrenia at 18 and has been in and out of mental hospitals since then. DeWitt’s family has said they tried to get him repeatedly admitted for long-term treatment but DeWitt declined to receive it. Under California law, it is very difficult to commit people to mental institutions without their consent.

The Cukors called on Alameda County to adopt Laura’s Law, which would make it easier to provide long-term treatment to those who need it.

“Daniel DeWitt should have been locked up long ago – he was a clear danger to himself and others,” said Christopher Cuckor. “There is a law, Laura’s Law, that was passed in 2002 that tries to end the “revolving” door of the mental health system. However, this law must be adopted by counties to go into effect – we urge Alameda County to adopt this law immediately.”

The family does not blame individual police officers for Cukor’s death, but police policies, said Van Blois.

“They respect the men and women of the police department who put their lives on the line every day,” said Van Blois. “What the family is upset about is that they weren’t allowed to do their job. They were prevented from doing their job by the policies of the Berkeley Police Department.”

View a BPD public communication giving out 510-981-5911 as an emergency number.

View an unofficial transcript of Peter Cukor’s 8:45 pm call to BPD.

View an email that Cukor received from a neighborhood emergency preparedness group telling him about an emergency number for cell phones. The group is set up to ready residents for natural disasters. It is not a crime prevention group, according to Stephanie Wade, president of the Park Hills Homes Association.

City releases transcript of murder victim’s call the police [03.27.12]
Suspect not competent to stand trial in Cukor murder [03.22.12]
Community gathers in wake of murder: quizzes Berkeley police [03.09.12]

Berkeley police: We responded properly to Cukor’s murder [03.02.12]
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]

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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...