Berkeleyside Gives Us the Lowdown on Uproar Over Late-Night Police Visit to Reporter

Regarding the strange doings in Berkeley concerning Police Chief Michael Meehan and Oakland Tribune reporter Doug Oakley, Frances Dinkelspiel of our news associate Berkeleyside broke it all down for KQED’s Sarah Baughn this morning. Here’s the interview…

On Thursday Mar 8 there was a very contentious meeting about the way Berkeley police responded to a recent murder. After this meeting, Oakland Tribune reporter Doug Oakley wrote a story in which he wrote that Chief Meehan said he apologized for the police response to that killing. Meehan saw the story online around midnight and got very angry because he said he did not apologize for the police response, only for the way he communicated after the murder.

So he tried to call Doug Oakley, send him emails asking for a correction. But when he couldn’t get him, he sent his public information officer, Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, over to Oakley’s house at 12:45 a.m.

Sgt Kusmiss knocked on Doug Oakley’s door, rousing him and his wife. Oakley went to the door and was completely bewildered to see Sgt Kusmiss there. He immediately thought that something had happened to a family member or that he was under arrest. Kusmiss informed him that the chief was very upset about the story and asked him if he would make some corrections to it.

Oakley explained nothing could be done until the morning, when Tribune editors got to the paper, but said he would withdraw the statement that Meehan had apologized forthe police response to the incident and instead say that Meehan would apologize for his communications with the community. So Oakley went back to bed and starting at 7 a.m., Meehan once again started to telephone Oakley and send him emails asking when the changes to the story would be made. Throughout much of the day Oakley and Chief Meehan had these communications, in which Meehan was pushing him to change other aspects of the story.

Doug Oakley at first didn’t think much of this incident, but as he pondered it, he began to feel very intimidated by the police actions. He felt very upset that Sgt Kusmiss had come to see him in the middle of the night.

Since this happened over the weekend, the city of Berkeley hasn’t quite figured out its response yet. Both Meehan and interim City Manager Christine Daniel have apologized profusely for Meehan’s actions, and it seems Meehan does truly seem remorseful. However many people are upset about this, including the rank and file of the police department, and they’ve issued a statement saying they were upset.

It’s important to note that prior to this people felt very good about Chief Meehan. Just last week he delivered a report to the city council talking about a large drop in crime. At the Thursday community meeting, people entered very angry, but they left assuaged; he did a good job explaining police actions. So he has a lot of goodwill in the city; the question is whether this stumble is a fireable offense or whether the city council will decide he just made a mistake and he can continue in his job.

Some people say there’s some irony here in that Berkeley is where the free speech movement began. But don’t forget this is also where Mayor Tom Bates a number of years ago stole more than a thousand copies of The Daily Californian on election day because it had endorsed his opponent. So there is some precedent in Berkeley for people in high office lashing out against the press.

Berkeley has very complex feelings about police departments. There’s a whole contingent of people who want police to tread lightly. Tasers are not permitted; they don’t’ use chokeholds. They’re circumscribed in some of the tools they use because Berkeley wants to make sure the department is not overbearing.

There was a lot of concern when Berkeley provided mutual aid in the Occupy Oakland protests. There was a lot of overzealousness on the part of the OPD, and that’s not the Berkeley Police Department’s reputation, and they want to stay away from that kind of policing. It’s a complicated city in which to be a police chief.

Video from ABC News includes short interviews with Meehan and Oakley:

Author

Jon Brooks

Jon Brooks writes mostly on film for KQED Arts. He is also an online editor and writer for KQED's daily news blog, News Fix. Jon is a playwright whose work has been produced in San Francisco, New York, Italy, and around the U.S.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor