The Berkeley Hills Murder Could Have Been Predicted

By Becky O'Malley
Friday February 24, 2012 - 07:44:00 AM

Anyone who has ever tried to help a friend or a family member connect with appropriate mental health services must feel for the two East Bay families who have been caught up in the tragic death of Peter Cukor. Despite the best efforts of the modern media equivalent of yellow journalism, there are no villains to be found in this story, just a whole list of victims of circumstances unforeseen and unforeseeable.  

The most obvious one is the dead man, Peter Cukor, by all accounts a good neighbor and a sensible person. Some online commenters have suggested that he erred in not calling 911 immediately when he encountered a stranger on his property. Some have even used this occurrence as an example of why homeowners should always have guns available. But accounts suggest that the visitor seemed confused but not dangerous, and was in fact unarmed. How could the Cukors have anticipated that the stranger would seize a pot and use it as a bludgeon? Shooting someone simply on suspicion that he might turn violent would be the height of folly.  

Another victim is the accused killer, Daniel Jordan Dewitt. He was arraigned on Wednesday on a murder charge, but did not enter a plea because he did not yet have an attorney, but was waiting to see if the Public Defender would represent him. It would be very surprising if he did not eventually plead not guilty by reason of insanity, since he had been treated from the age of 18 for paranoid schizophrenia. Many people with this diagnosis have been helped to lead relatively normal, uneventful and even happy lives, but helping them to find treatment that works and stick to it is a very difficult task. 

That’s why his family must also be considered victims in this tragedy. By their own account they’ve made sustained effort to connect their son with the help he needs, but it hasn’t worked for them. The families I know who have succeeded in getting their loved ones properly treated have had enormous resources backing them up. One was a strong military family headed by a high-ranking general, with several siblings successful in their own right in demanding professions, with free medical care supplied by the federal government. With all this assistance available, getting their schizophrenic sister successfully situated where she could be well cared for and keeping up with her welfare still required a huge effort on everyone’s part.  

Not every family can do this. Most can’t, in fact. Now the Dewitts, like the Cukors, will have to live for the rest of their lives with the results. 

It’s often popular to blame the police when things go wrong, and sometimes that blame is deserved. But in all honesty, it seems that the Berkeley police did all that could have been expected of them in this situation. Officers were dispatched within a minute after the 911 call came in, and an officer arrived on the scene within five minutes of being dispatched. Given the location, at the top of the Berkeley hills adjacent to Tilden Park, it’s hard to imagine a faster response than that.  

It’s true that no officer went to the scene when the first non-emergency call came in. But that’s because no one, not the police, not the Cukors, believed that it was an emergency situation at the time that call was placed. 

Berkeley police, perhaps unwisely, have offered the explanation that they were distracted by anticipation of possible disturbances stemming from the Occupy Oakland march into Berkeley. No such problems materialized, so few of the many Berkeley police who seem to have been held in reserve were visible at the two protests which took place that day, according to Planet reporter Ted Friedman, one of the few media people who went to the demonstrations. BPD’s estimate of the probability of serious problems turned out to be wrong, but they’re not clairvoyant, and it wasn’t unreasonable for them to fear that something might happen which would need police presence. 

The only quibble one might make about BPD is with the recent practice of sending several cars and many officers almost any time an incident occurs. We’ve all seen four or five police cars lined up in front of a neighbor’s house—people call and email the Planet all the time to find out what’s going on, but despite our best efforts we can seldom discover the cause of the excitement. If “responding” now means that many officers and vehicles must be involved, by definition the number of incidents Berkeley police can handle simultaneously must be reduced. Hindsight is 20-20, but even if many cars and officers were assembled to wait for Occupy Oakland to get out of line, one car and two officers might have been spared to respond to the first call from the Cukors.  

If there’s any real villain in this picture, it might be what is commonly called “the system”, or more precisely in this case the lack of a viable mental health system easily available to people with problems. We’ve documented this lack before and the Dewitt family in their statements to the media about what they’ve gone through with their son bear witness to how difficult it is to get help.  

This problem started when Ronald Reagan decreed that patients were to be released from state hospitals in order that they could be treated in the community, but then neglected to fund the community facilities. And now mental health services of all kinds, including the well-regarded Berkeley Mental Health, have suffered severe cuts to already insufficient budgets.  

It’s not just a matter of money, either.  

Even if there were enough trained mental health professionals to treat all who needed their help, the ongoing debate about who should authorize treatment is difficult to deal with. Many advocates for the mentally ill believe that the patient’s right to refuse treatment is a central civil right and have fought for that principle in the courts. On the other hand, when a person’s grip on reality is as tenuous as this young man’s seems to be, common sense suggests that someone must make the decision for him, if he’s “a danger to himself or others” in the words of the law. But judging when that point is reached would be difficult in the best of circumstances, and it’s nigh impossible for overburdened staffers to do. 

Mental health care, of course, is only one of the many public responsibilities which Americans in general and Californians in particular have chosen to evade. If we’re looking for opportunities to point fingers, we might just point them at ourselves. While the particular circumstances of this tragic event could not have been predicted by those involved, we can be sure that at any given moment there are people on the street in desperate need of help, and that sooner or later one of them is going to harm someone else. It’s a big problem, and we need to deal with it with big solutions.