The city of Berkeley has hired a public relations firm at a cost of $24,000 to review the police department’s media policies, bringing the price tag to $49,000 for Police Chief Michael Meehan’s decision to send a sergeant to a reporter’s home in the middle of the night to ask for a change to a story.
Cornerstone Communications, located in Irvine, will audit the police department’s policies on the release of information, make recommendations to ensure the department is following “best practices,” media guidelines, and train police personnel on changing media dynamics, on understanding social media, and media culture.
The firm will talk to police management and reporters who cover the police department, and assess the police department’s reputation in recent news coverage and social media space. The contract was signed on May 1.
“The goal here is to learn and for the police department to do the best it can,” Bill Rams, the company founder and a former investigative reporter for the Orange County Register, told the Oakland Tribune.
The hiring of Cornerstone Communications comes more than two months after Meehan’s March 9 action, a decision for which he has repeatedly apologized and said he regrets.
After Oakland Tribune reporter Doug Oakley wrote an article about a community meeting called to talk about the police response to the Feb. 18 murder of Berkeley Hills resident Peter Cukor, Meehan ordered Sgt. Mary Kusmiss to go to Oakley’s home at 12:45 am. Oakley had written that Meehan had apologized for the way the police responded, when, in fact, Meehan had not said that. The chief had apologized for the way the police responded to the media, not to the crime.
Meehan had called and emailed Oakley after the story went online around 11:00 pm. When Meehan could not contact the reporter, he sent Kusmiss to ask Oakley to change the story. Oakley was asleep when Kusmiss arrived at his house. He corrected the article and later told Berkeleyside that he felt intimidated by her visit, even though he knew her well.
The early morning visit was widely criticized, with news stories appearing around the world. Some observers suggested it smacked of police intimidation or censorship.
A few days after the visit, Interim City Manager Christine Daniel hired the San Francisco law firm of Renne, Sloan, Holtzman, Sakai to investigate Meehan’s actions. The contract authorizes the firm to spend up to $25,000 to look into the situation. Jeffrey Sloan, the lead attorney on the investigation, will be paid $350 an hour. A more junior attorney in the firm will be paid $235 an hour, and an investigator will be paid $205 an hour, if approved in advance by Berkeley, according to the contract.
It does not look like the results of that investigation will be made public. City officials have said it is a personnel matter. Meehan, however, could request that the report be made public.
Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, who has served as the police department’s public information officer numerous times in the past 10 years, was called to testify at the inquiry. She has since announced that she is stepping down from her current position. No replacement has been named, although Meehan said recently he had a strong candidate.
The police department has been in turmoil since the incident. The Berkeley Police Association, the union that represents most of the officers in the department, has criticized Meehan’s actions. It also sent the city manager a strongly worded letter on March 16 calling for an impartial investigation. Daniels had already hired the Renne law firm by the time the BPA sent its letter, but had not made the information public. She did so about 30 minutes after news stories about the BPA letter appeared.
Cornerstone Communications will complete its initial work within 45 days and will complete the re-training of police officers by October 31. The contract is worth $20,000, with an additional $4,000 added for travel expenses.
Read the contract with Cornerstone Communications. Read the contract with the Renne, Sloan, Holtzman, Sakai law firm.
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