On Tuesday, minutes after the end of a Berkeley Police Department promotion ceremony, reporters rushed over to interview Chief Michael Meehan.
The journalists were not interested in details about the promotions. Instead, they pushed their microphones and cameras close to Meehan and pressed him for more information about his decision to send a sergeant to the house of an Oakland Tribune reporter in the middle of the night on March 9 to press for changes to an article about Meehan’s department’s response to a crime.
The incident has raised a heated debate over free speech in this famously liberal city.
Meehan tried hard to stay on message about reducing crime. But he could not escape scrutiny about what he admitted was a “significant error of judgment.”
Christine Daniel, the interim city manager, hired a San Francisco law firm to examine the incident — but only after the police union pushed for an inquiry. City Council members, who by law are not allowed to interfere in personnel matters, appear to support Meehan unanimously because he has overseen a steady drop in crime and overtime expenses during his two-year tenure.
Numerous residents, however, have called for Meehan’s resignation, saying that he abused his power and violated the First Amendment.
Meehan is not the first Berkeley official to get into trouble over an attempt to control the news media. In 2003, Mayor Tom Bates pleaded guilty to an infraction and paid a $100 fine for stealing 1,000 copies of The Daily Californian in 2002 because it endorsed his opponent.
“Berkeley is a funny place,” said Kriss Worthington, a City Council member. “We have a strange relationship with free press and free speech.”
The controversy over Meehan’s actions has its roots in the way police responded to a Feb. 18 murder. Peter Cukor, 67, and his wife, Andrea, were returning to their home in the Berkeley hills around 8:30 p.m. when they encountered a stranger in their driveway who insisted he lived there. Cukor told the man to leave, then called the Berkeley police non-emergency number.
The dispatcher ranked the call Priority 2, meaning there was no crime in progress or imminent danger to the caller. But the police department was responding only to Priority 1 calls at that time because it was preparing for the arrival of an Occupy Oakland march.
Cukor walked across the street to a fire station, but no one was there. When he returned home, the young man, later identified as Daniel Jordan DeWitt, 23, allegedly beat him over the head with a ceramic planter.
Around 8:59 p.m., Andrea Cukor called 911. Berkeley police responded immediately, but by the time paramedics arrived Cukor had gone into cardiac arrest, according to city documents. He was pronounced dead later that evening.
Police arrested DeWitt within 25 minutes. He was charged with murder, but an Alameda County judge ruled last week that he was not mentally competent to stand trial.
Outrage over the killing led Berkeley officials to call a community gathering on March 8. After the meeting, Doug Oakley, an Oakland Tribune reporter, wrote that Meehan had apologized for the way the police responded.
But the chief had actually apologized for not communicating better with residents. When Meehan saw the article posted online around 11:30 p.m., he tried to email and call the reporter to get him to change it. When Meehan could not contact Oakley — he was asleep — the chief sent his public information officer, Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, to the reporter’s house at 12:45 a.m.
As news stories about the late-night visit to the reporter’s house went viral, even landing in publications in Britain, Meehan issued an apology. At first, the interim city manager seemed to accept the explanation, releasing a statement on March 10 that the chief had assured her it would never happen again.
The outrage grew, but Daniel did not make any further statements until March 16 after the police union called for an independent investigation. Thirty minutes after the union released its statement, Daniel said she had hired a law firm five days earlier to look into the matter.
“It’s probably the most intimidating of all types of prior restraint or censorship that can be exercised,” said Jim Ewert, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers’ Association. “It may have just been an exercise of bad judgment, but I think the citizens of Berkeley should scrutinize his future conduct pretty closely.”
This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.