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Hard Luck Berkeley Police Chief Trying to Keep Head Above Water (News Analysis)

By Ted Friedman
Thursday May 31, 2012 - 04:26:00 PM
"Authorized Personnel Only" behind these doors. If only we could get a foot in the door.
Ted Friedman
"Authorized Personnel Only" behind these doors. If only we could get a foot in the door.

These are hard-luck times for Berkeley Police Chief Michael K. Meehan completing his second year as Berkeley's top cop, and trying to keep his head "above water," or as he has described it, trying to stay ahead of the "media curve." 

And the times seemed to get harder last week after details surfaced of a January overtime investigation to locate the chief's son's stolen cell phone. Ironically, the chief may be taking the blame for exactly the kinds of overtime investigations he would like to curtail. 

Police spokesmen say the chief did not order the cell-phone investigation, and at least one officer said that such pursuits of stolen property are necessary to "send a message" that even seemingly petty crimes will be pursued in Berkeley. 

The cell-phone incident was reported at the Huffington Post, Yahoo News, SF Chronicle, Bay Area News Group, national television, radio, and condemned in a Daily Californian editorial Thursday. 

Berkeley's Northside near campus recently experienced a string of strong-arm robberies, although summer break—when felons have fewer students to rob—may lessen the problem, according to one officer. 

At mid-year, Berkeley already has recorded three homicides, when some years there are none or 2-3 for the year. The first homicide, in January, has not been 'solved,' and the second, in February, continues to stir up doubts over whether the police might have prevented it. 

Berkeley continues to have "a serious crime problem, with a crime rate 50% higher than similarly sized cities." according to the chief himself. 

At a packed Northside church three months ago, Meehan, 51, seemed to have re-assured a surly crowd that they were safe in their homes. "I live here with my wife and two kids," the Chief winningly observed. "I want Berkeley to be a safe place." 

As to charges of police screw-ups the night of the murder in the exclusive Park Hills neighborhood—Meehan said, "we're human" adding that cops were "people too." 

"If any other department is doing something different from ours," he said, "we want to know about it," suggesting Berkeley police were playing by the rules Feb. 18, when noted chemical engineer, Peter M. Cukor, 67, was killed by a 23 year-old Alameda man, who has been judged incompetent to stand trial. 

Because the murder trial of Cukor's assailant is on hold, we will not learn what motivated the killer to connect with Cukor, much less what really transpired that night—in the hills and back at BPD headquarters where police were "monitoring" an Occupy Oakland/Cal "Fuck the Police March," anticipating violence. 

"Fuck the Police" marches, not to be taken literally, have a violent record in Oakland where masked anarchists calling themselves "Black Block," have rioted—in response to police provocation, they say. 

Meehan touted the success of police handling of the Feb. 18 FTP demo in Berkeley, which turned out to be a self-love fest among the protesters, during which they celebrated their past achievements. 

"I'm particularly proud of that," [police handling of the protest] Meehan told the North-siders. There were no arrests that night and no incidents, according to Meehan 

But only hours after the public meeting convened, Meehan sent an (likely) armed police spokeswoman to a local reporter's home to request changes to his just-posted story for Bay Area news Group, a bay area press conglomerate. 

Meehan's actions that night triggered an avalanche of protests that threatened to bury him and triggered an investigation commissioned by the city manager's office, not to mention a mass media Berkeley cop-watch that has made the chief notorious on-line. When Meehan showed up at a recent Police Review Commission with his attorney, he refused to take questions, except those submitted in writing. 

[See correction explained here] ] 

Back in March, Meehan's own Police Officers Association,rebuked him tartly for his actions. 

Attacked from without and within, Meehan, an expert on homeland security, on which he has published scholarly articles and papers, could not be blamed for feeling his own security threatened. The chief has a Master’s Degree in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness from the Naval Postgraduate School. 

When Meehan was sworn in as chief in January 2010, the then city manager Phil Kamlarz, lauded the appointment, saying Meehan would "keep his head above water." Perhaps he has, but he must be gasping for air each time he takes another dunking. 


News of the chief's latest media imbroglio reached vacationing South side Planet reporter, Friedman, in Portland.