One of the longest serving police officers in recent Berkeley history will go out as with one of the briefest reigns as police chief.
Roy Meisner, 55, announced his retirement Wednesday, effective Dec. 31, after more than three decades in the Berkeley Police Department, the last two serving as Berkeley’s top cop.
“I’ve been doing this 32 years and it’s time,” said Meisner. He said he had taken the job thinking he’d stay five years, but decided it was time to pass the job over to someone who would be in it for the long term.
“It’s time to do strategic planning and when I looked five years out, I had to ask is that me leading the department or is that someone else?” he said.
Meisner said he didn’t approach the job as a transitional leader, but came to feel like his “number one job was to prepare my successor.”
Meisner becomes the latest to join the recent exodus of top administrators from city government. In the past few months City Clerk Sherry Kelly, Fire Chief Reginald Garcia and Human Resources Director Nikki Spillane have all announced their plans to retire.
City Manager Phil Kamlarz attributed the slew of resignations to the city’s generous retirement benefits, which are especially lucrative for police officers like Meisner. “He’s working for free right now,” said Kamlarz, referring to Meisner’s city-funded pension.
State law mandates that Meisner receive 90 percent of his annual salary, listed last January at $162,230, for an annual pension of at least $146,007. Additionally, through the city’s Supplemental Retirement Income Plan, which currently sets aside annual payments of $2,170 per employee in addition to salary, Meisner could get an additional six-figure payout.
Berkeley will conduct a nationwide search for Meisner’s replacement and will consider in-house applications, Assistant City Manager Arrietta Chakos said. She expected the search to extend past Meisner’s final day on the job, she added, making the appointment of an interim chief likely.
Speculation among police watchers is that Captain Stephanie Fleming, a Berkeley native and 26-year department veteran, would be the Berkeley officer most likely to win the promotion. Earlier this year, she was the point person on the department’s failed attempt to start a canine unit. If appointed chief, Fleming would be the first woman to lead the city’s police force.
Kamlarz said whoever succeeds Meisner will have a tough act to follow. “Roy’s one of the people whose judgment I can trust on any given issue,” he said.
Meisner started his career in 1972 as a patrol officer in a very different Berkeley.
“The riot years had turned the community and officers against each other,” he said. “’Pigs off campus was the phrase.’ Now it’s just the opposite,” he said.
Though Meisner doesn’t live in Berkeley and wouldn’t give his city of residence, he said 32 years of policing Berkeley had left an indelible mark. “There are many people who raised me in this community and shaped my thinking on the issues,” he said. As chief, Meisner said he “emphasized basic responsibility about enforcing the law and doing it courteously.”
Meisner assumed the top job under tough circumstances: The era of city cutbacks was just underway and improved retirement benefits resulted in a much younger, less experienced force.
“We really developed a team approach to handling the cuts,” said Meisner who praised his union for agreeing to a city-requested salary giveback. In the latest round of cuts, Meisner lost 13 police officer jobs that were already vacant.
For the new officers, Meisner said he revisited departmental orders and changed them to further one of his chief tasks: restoring community policing in Berkeley.
Councilmember Kriss Worthington credited Meisner with reviving the program, which he said had been ignored under former Chief Dash Butler.
Like his predecessor, Meisner also caught flak for the department’s reputation of not divulging crime details to residents. Meisner oversaw the department putting its police log online, and said the department would become better at dispensing information to the community when it replaces its outdated crime analysis system.
Asked about a specific memory, Meisner, like several veteran Berkeley officers immediately recalled the night of Sept. 27, 1990 when a lone gunman open fire and took 33 hostages at Henry’s Publick House, a Telegraph Avenue Bar. As operations commander, Meisner was never on the scene for the seven hour stand-off that ended when a SWAT team stormed the bar and killed the gunman, but that didn’t diminish what how he felt about the work of his fellow officers. “You celebrate the great people you work with,” he said. “I was never as proud of the department.”