When news of Captain Michael Meehan’s appointment as Berkeley’s new police chief reached Seattle last week, the city was going through a rough patch.
The Seattle Police Department, where Meehan heads the Violent Crime Division, had just lost veteran Officer Timothy Brenton during a fatal Halloween night drive-by shooting, which many are describing as a targeted attack on Seattle police at random, even assassination.
Brenton’s partner Officer Britt Sweeney, sitting next to him in the police patrol vehicle, was seriously injured.
As Seattle prepared Friday for a funeral procession to honor 39-year-old Brenton, the father of two young children, Meehan flew back to attend the memorial after interviewing with the Berkeley City Council.
“It’s been really tough around here,” Meehan, 48, told the Planet during a telephone interview from Seattle Monday. “We have had a lot on our mind.”
Meehan wasn’t present at Tuesday’s Berkeley City Council meeting, at which councilmembers confirmed him as former Berkeley Police Chief Doug Hambleton’s replacement.
“Please extend my apologies to the people of Berkeley, but I still have a job I need to finish here,” Meehan said. “I was planning to go down there a few weeks before joining, but it looks like that’s not happening anymore.”
Meehan is scheduled to start his new job Dec. 13.
Seattle police are working around the clock to uncover clues behind Brenton’s slaying, and are preparing to file charges Thursday against the suspect, Tukwila resident Christopher John Monfort.
When the conversation turned to his new job in Berkeley, Meehan, who was born and raised in Southern California, opened up, offering a glimpse into his personal life.
“I am very delighted about it, very hopeful and very excited,” he said. “I am looking forward to getting back to California and working closely with the community there.”
A business graduate from the University of Washington, Meehan has a master’s degree in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey.
On why he picked Berkeley, a college town less than half the size of Seattle, Meehan, who has been with the Seattle force since 1986, said he was attracted to the “interesting challenges and fine staff” of the Berkeley Police Department, which has 185 sworn officers and 116 non-sworn personnel and an annual operating budget of $56 million.
Meehan’s annual salary will be $205,400 and he will also receive a $500,000 housing assistance loan from the city of Berkeley.
Meehan was picked from a three-panel nationwide search, which included mailing brochures to police chiefs in the top 100 university towns in the country, and narrowing the search down to eight candidates and ultimately three finalists.
“He’s very friendly, very open, and he’ll be good with the community,” said Berkeley City Manager Phil Kamlarz, who said the city had conducted a thorough background check on Meehan. “And he has a lot of experience.”
Besides heading SPD’s training, vice, narcotics. major crimes, fraud, audit, policy, ethics and auto theft division, Meehan also led its Field Training Program, where he was in charge of more than 100 field training officers and sergeants.
“I have reached a point in my life where my wife and I could use a change,” Meehan said. “Plus Berkeley has a warmer climate. Northern California particularly appealed to us. It’s close to Southern California, and there’s a lot of stuff to do outdoors.”
Meehan said he was looking forward to exploring California’s natural wilderness with his two young children.
Seattlites who worked closely with Meehan when he took over the city’s East Precinct—which serves the predominantly gay Capitol Hill area, and has 135 officers and a budget of $20 million—in 2004, praised him.
Andrew Taylor, chair of the Miller Park Neighborhood Association, said he first met Meehan when he toured the Madison–Miller neighborhood that year to talk to neighbors.
“I took a picture of him,” said Taylor, who has been living in Seattle since the 1980s and runs a neighborhood blog. “He put on his uniform, stuck his truncheon in his jacket—he was like the Pied Piper walking through town, and as he walked, more and more neighbors came along. His photograph pretty much tells the story. He was the most confident in talking to the public, probably the most intelligent. He liked doing his job.”
Taylor said that his neighborhood had struggled with drug dealing and prostitution for years, which he said percolated from an old bar in the area called Deano’s.
“People were finding prostitutes' customers getting blowjobs on their back porches ... It was really bad,” he said. “Capt. Meehan was very honest about what could be done. He has always been frank to discuss matters.”
One of Taylor’s old blog posts on Meehan’s visit says: “[Meehan] emphasized that while the police could help with an immediate problem by arresting someone, their experience was that, due to long waits for court dates and short sentences, this did little to help the long-term chronic problems in the neighborhood. His advice was for neighbors to select a couple of discrete problems and to concentrate on finding solutions for them.”
Taylor said that Meehan along with Lt. John Hayes of the SPD started an outreach program that offered social services to the addicts and homeless people hanging around in the neighborhood.
“They were not only protecting us, but doing something for the community as well,” he said. “I can’t think of any reason why you wouldn’t want him as your police chief. I would love to have him back as the Seattle Police Chief, but the logical career progress would be to be the commander of a medium-sized city.”
When Deano’s closed down a few years ago, Taylor said, the problems stopped literally overnight. Meehan and Hayes nominated Taylor for SPD’s Citizen Appreciation Award in 2004 for being a “model community organizer and a tireless advocate for those who live in the neighborhood.”
A post on the blog Capitol Hill Seattle, by Doug Schwartz, noted that historically, police commanders have had short stints at the East Precinct, which is Seattle’s newest, with nine officers over a period of 10 years.
When Schwartz interviewed Meehan about how long he expected to stay on the “Hill”, he said: “I say this laughingly, but I told my boss that my intention is to stay here until the day I retire. I'll stay here as long as they allow me to stay. I am very happy to be at the East Precinct.”
Meehan stayed at the East Precinct until mid-2005.
Some of Meehan’s harshest critics in Seattle called him a “radical conservative.”
“He’s a very nice guy,” said Dominic Holden, a writer and editor at Seattle’s alternative newsweekly The Stranger, who in 2003 spearheaded the campaign to pass Initiative 75, which aims to reduce pot possession to the lowest law-enforcement priority in the city, a law Meehan opposed from the very beginning and wanted to repeal last year while sitting on a city-appointed marijuana policy review panel in his role as head of the SPD’s narcotics section.
“However, you will have a police chief cut from the mold of the Bush-era drug policy,” Holden warned. “I am surprised that a city that’s as progressive as Berkeley chose an officer who by Seattle’s standards is very conservative in his views about drug crime.”
Like Seattle, which is home to the world’s largest hempfest, Berkeley too has a liberal marijuana-use policy. The city’s Municipal Code mandates that the Berkeley City Council ensure “that the Berkeley Police Department gives lowest priority to the enforcement of marijuana laws.”
Holden said that although Seattle police appeared to be complying with the law under Meehan, he proposed more than two dozen changes to the panel’s final report to indicate rising drug crime rates and use rates among teens although the data showed the opposite.
The report showed an overall decrease in marijuana cases and prosecution since the voter-approved initiative’s passage, but a racial disparity in the number of arrests.
Meehan’s primary concern, as reported in a Jan. 10 Seattle Times article, was the effect of the law on youth. “I don’t want to send a message to kids that drug use is OK,” he said.
After talking to Meehan, several Berkeley councilmembers said they were impressed that Meehan regularly consulted with the ACLU about marijuana laws, something Holden said was only natural.
“There is no way he can be the narcotics captain and not consult with the ACLU,” Holden said. “There are a number of laws that are ambiguous and the ACLU is a key player on drug policy.”
Meehan defended his position, but stressed that he could not go into a lot of detail about policy since he had not been officially appointed chief at the time of the interview.
“I am not sure citizen initiatives are the best way to set the priority for the police department,” he said. “I think the police department should work with the leaders of the city [to address enforcement].”
Meehan said both Seattle—which he called extremely progressive—and Berkeley had similar cultures, and that he was willing to keep an open mind.
“Having worked in narcotics for some time, I can say with some authority that Seattle has many laws that are very similar to Berkeley and I want to learn more about them,” he said. “I think people will be very surprised with how open I am. I am willing to do things Berkeley’s way.”
Meehan said he was aware of Berkeley’s position as a Sanctuary City to undocumented immigrants.
“I am supportive of anything that is protective of people’s rights,” he said. “But at the same time I want the city to be safe as can be. I feel comfortable moving to Berkeley—I don’t feel apprehensive at all.”
Advocates of decriminalizing marijuana use in Berkeley said they were looking forward to working with Meehan.
“It will take some time for him to fit into Berkeley, but hopefully he will acclimatize,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington.
Robert MacCoun, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, said that it was unlikely that Meehan would come in and change any existing marijuana-use policies.
“Even without laws marijuana possession is already a low priority” he said. “There’s no state in the United States that makes marijuana possession a top priority. It’s kind of a tool used to justify other crimes. It has more of a political implication—if you are opposed to the law, it’s like ‘I want to send a tough message.’ But I doubt whether he (Meehan) would bring about any real policy change. There are so many priorities it’s difficult to see it rising to a high priority.”
Speaking at the City Council meeting Tuesday, students and community members asked their new chief to address escalating crime on the north and south of campus.
Police Review Commission Officer Victoria Erbi said the commission was currently in the process of urging the City Council to reinstate Berkeley Police General Order A-1, which asks police officers to use the “least intrusive action ... when possible.”
Former Police Chief Doug Hambleton rescinded the order two weeks before retiring in September.
“It’s the difference between being issued a citation or being warned during, say, jaywalking,” Urbi said. “Hambleton said the order didn’t make much sense to the police department and that there were other general orders similar to A1. But he couldn’t point out anything.”
Urbi said interim chief Eric Gustafson was holding off on any policy changes until Meehan takes office.