Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan Shouldn’t Resign

He messed up, but he had reason to request a newspaper correction. Also, Jerry Brown makes a smart move with Millionaire's Tax.

Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan screwed up earlier this month when he sent police spokeswoman Mary Kusmiss to the home of Bay Area News Group reporter Doug Oakley late at night to correct an online story. Meehan should have waited until the next morning to request the correction; he has acknowledged as much, and has apologized. And although his decision to dispatch Sergeant Kusmiss to Oakley’s house at 12:45 a.m. was a mistake, the firestorm over his actions has been overblown and calls for him to resign, premature.

Lost in the public dustup was that the reporter, Oakley, got his story wrong, and that Meehan had a right to demand it be corrected. Oakley’s error wasn’t trivial either. His story stated that Meehan had publicly apologized for the police department’s slow response to the killing of 67-year-old Peter Cukor outside his Berkeley hills home. In truth, the police chief had apologized for not informing the public sooner about what had happened.

That’s a big difference. If the city’s police chief really had admitted that the police department was culpable for Cukor’s death, Oakley’s paper, the Oakland Tribune, would have had a major scoop. Moreover, if Cukor’s family were thinking about suing the city, Meehan’s apology and admission of guilt would have been Exhibit A. It’s no wonder why Meehan was so concerned about getting the story corrected as soon as possible.

It’s also not at all clear whether Berkeley PD is culpable for Cukor’s death. On the night he was killed, he had called the police department’s non-emergency number, reporting that a suspicious person was outside his home. A police officer was prepared to respond to the call, but didn’t go because the department was on alert for an Occupy protest and was not responding to non-emergency calls. But even if the officer had gone to Cukor’s place, there was no guarantee that he would have arrived in time to prevent Cukor from being bludgeoned to death. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that only thirteen minutes elapsed between the time that Cukor called the non-emergency line and he was bludgeoned. And Cukor’s house on Grizzly Peak is not close to downtown Berkeley.

Moreover, police departments typically don’t respond to non-emergency calls right away — certainly not in thirteen minutes. If Cukor had lived in Oakland, police might have never dispatched an officer. As such, the outcry from Berkeley hills residents about the department’s response that night has been unreasonable. If wealthy residents want their police department to respond in less than thirteen minutes to every non-emergency call, then they’re going to need a much bigger police force, and they’re going to need to tax themselves a whole lot more.

The mock outrage from the Berkeley police union also should be ignored. The news website Berkeleyside reported that the police union is currently in tough negotiations with Meehan and the city over a new contract. The union also has been angry with Meehan because of his success in cracking down on police misconduct and in curtailing costly overtime. Meehan reforms, in fact, have saved Berkeley taxpayers plenty of money. It’s no wonder that two liberal Berkeley councilmembers, Jesse Arreguin and Kriss Worthington, who are not afraid of criticizing police, have said they want Meehan to remain as chief.

As for Oakley, it’s understandable that he was unhappy about getting the late-night visit from a police sergeant. He also has said he felt “intimidated.” But based on what we know so far, it doesn’t seem likely that Meehan’s actions were meant to intimidate. For starters, Oakley, who has covered Berkeley for a long time, knows Kusmiss well. She showed up at his door in plain clothes, and she’s not a particularly intimidating person. In addition, Oakley has acknowledged that Kusmiss told him she didn’t want to be there, nor did she threaten him in any way.

It’s also worth noting that Kusmiss called and emailed Oakley before going to his house, and he didn’t respond. Oakley’s story had been posted online only a short time earlier, and Meehan wanted it corrected right away. There’s a good reason for that — once it got out there that Berkeley’s police chief had apologized for letting a man die, it’s hard to clear that from the public’s consciousness, even if it later turns out to be untrue.

Last week, the City of Berkeley revealed that it had hired an outside law firm to investigate Meehan’s actions. But based on what we know so far, it appears that Meehan is guilty only of bad judgment.

Brown and the Millionaire’s Tax

In recent weeks it was becoming increasingly clear that Governor Jerry Brown‘s tax measure was headed for defeat. It included an unpopular sales tax hike, and numerous polls showed that it was trailing the rival Millionaire’s Tax by a substantial margin. Backers of the Millionaire’s Tax also had repeatedly rebuffed requests by Brown to drop their measure in favor of his. So Brown, instead of pushing on with his doomed proposal, struck a deal last week with the sponsors of the Millionaire’s Tax and combined the two measures into one. It was a smart move.

Although Brown is already taking criticism from moderates — the Chronicle editorial board said that he “caved” — the deal makes sense politically. Tax measures are never easy to pass in California, and Democrats and progressives likely need a united front to be successful. Republicans were never going to endorse either tax measure, while infighting threatened to divide traditional alliances on the left. For example, the California Federation of Teachers was backing the Millionaire’s Tax while the state’s other major teachers’ union, the California Teachers’ Association, was supporting Brown’s plan. Now, the two influential unions will be working together, along with virtually all the major unions in the state.

The One Percent, of course, will probably fund an expensive campaign against the compromise measure. But big corporations may be reticent about taking on the new proposal out of fear of angering Brown — and then not getting what they want on other issues.

The main drawback to the deal is the sales tax increase — 0.25 percent instead of 0.5 that Brown had proposed. Sales taxes are regressive; they impact low- and middle-income earners the most. But the prospect of a united, winning campaign to raise revenues and help avoid further budget cuts is important. The compromise also plan will help level the tax playing field in California, because it will raise taxes much more on the One Percent than on the 99 Percent.


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