Berkeley Police Chief Chief Michael Meehan: Resign, Or Be Fired

Politics & Current Events

Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone makes errors of judgment.

In most cases, we apologize, fix our mistake, and move on. Since we're all fallible, folks tend to forgive and forget — or at least tolerate — the occasional error.

But some mistakes — some errors of judgment — are so egregious that they can't be forgiven or forgotten. Some mistakes show that the people who made them are unsuited for the position in which they find themselves, and cannot be trusted with the authority they wield.

Michael K. Meehan, the Chief of Police of the City of Berkeley, California, has made such a mistake. He should resign, or the Berkeley City Council should fire his ass. Now.

Chief Michael Meehan should resign, or be fired, because he has demonstrated that his instincts and inclinations are utterly incompatible with wielding police power in a nation governed by the rule of law and a constitution. See, one night last week Chief Meehan read a story that he felt misstated his position on a controversial issue. The story reported that Chief Meehan had apologized for a slow police response to an incident; Chief Meehan felt that it was more accurate to say he had apologized for the police being slow in giving an explanation for the response time.

Chief Meehan apparently tried to reach the reporter, Doug Oakley, and the news organization, the Bay Area News Group. He was unsuccessful, probably because it was late at night.

So Berkeley Police Chief Michael K. Meehan sent a police officer to the home of reporter Doug Oakley to knock on his door at 12:45 a.m. and complain and ask for the story to be changed.

When Kusmiss knocked on Oakley's door, the journalist, his wife and their two sons, ages 3 and 5, were asleep. Oakley, whose address is listed online, thought at first that something bad had happened to a relative.

Kusmiss, in civilian clothes, told Oakley that she was mortified to be at his home but said she was given a direct order to request he change his story, the reporter said. Oakley told her that no one could post an amended article until later that morning.

Oakley said after Kusmiss left, he began shaking and had a panic attack, wondering if Meehan "can do this whenever he's mad at me, or send someone else who is not as sympathetic as Mary and threaten me." After changes were made in the story about 7 a.m. Friday, Meehan e-mailed Oakley repeatedly with requests for more alterations, Oakley said.

Chief Michael Meehan, caught in a moment of not sending police officers to intimidate reporters in their homes at night.

The officer that Chief Meehan sent to knock on a reporter's door at 12:45 a.m. was Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, a public relations officer who is nevertheless a sworn officer of the department. Though Sgt. Kusmiss says she was "mortified" to be given the order to knock on a citizen's door in the middle of the night to complain about a news story on behalf of the police department, she followed orders.

Chief Meehan now recognizes that sending officers to bang on citizens' doors in the middle of the night is, perhaps, not appropriate conduct:

Meehan apologized Friday.

"I would say it was an overzealous attempt to make sure that accurate information is put out," Meehan said. "I could have done better." Meehan said he didn't think Oakley would be upset or intimidated because the police sergeant, Mary Kusmiss, regularly deals with the media.

"I did not mean to upset (Oakley) or his family last night; it was late, (I was) tired, too. I don't dispute that it could be perceived badly," he said.

It's nice that he recognizes he erred. But it's too little, too late. Sending police to knock on reporters' doors in the middle of the night because law enforcement officials are unhappy with how they are portrayed in news stories is something that we expect in Syria or Egypt or Iran. It's not something that we expect — or should tolerate for a nanosecond — in America. I don't care if Sgt. Kusmiss was in her civvies or not: when a law enforcement officer knocks on a reporter's door at 12:45 a.m. to demand a retraction to a report, the unmistakeable message is one of thuggery, of threatened force, of official suppression. The impulse to censor is in all of us. When officials have troops and guns and power, we have a right to expect that they are capable of governing that impulse, even when they are "tired." If they cannot — if their self-control is so weak that they cannot resist sending officers to a reporter's home in the middle of the night to demand changes to a story — they clearly lack the judgment and discipline necessary to ensure that law enforcement will respect the rule of law and the United States Constitution.

Thanks for your service, Chief Meehan. But you don't have what it takes. You should resign today. If not, the City Council should fire you.

As for Sgt. Kusmiss, I'm not sure what discipline she should face. It's hard to stand up to your superiors. But she knew that what she was being asked to do was wrong, and she did it anyway. "I was just following orders" is not a defense. She's a sergeant with the police force, supposedly capable of leadership and command judgment. She failed to show it here. There should be consequences to her.

Hat Tip to Csoar.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

29 Comments

29 Comments

  1. BL1Y  •  Mar 12, 2012 @8:44 am

    "12:45 in the morning"

    There's a 12:45 at night, and a 12:45 in the afternoon, but 12:45 in the morning? I hope to never have whatever crazy work schedule has led you to discover this bizarre hour.

  2. Ken  •  Mar 12, 2012 @8:46 am

    I sent an email to the police department.

    Dear Berkeley Police Department:

    Please see the link to a post calling for Chief Meehan's resignation or termination:

    http://www.popehat.com/2012/03/12/berkeley-police-chief-chief-michael-meehan-resign-or-be-fired/

    It's probably inconvenient for any of your officers to drive to my house to threaten me in the middle of the night, since I live in Southern California. Your best bet is to send them on Southwest from Oakland to Burbank. If you take the latest flight, they can swing by my place in time to bang on my door at 12:45 a.m., get some something to eat at a diner, and take the first flight back up.

    Cheers,

    etc.

  3. Al  •  Mar 12, 2012 @8:46 am

    Both Chief Meehan and Sgt. Kusmiss should be fired although I could see some other disciplinary action (such as a reduction in rank) being appropriate in Kusmiss' case.

    My bet: Meehan and Berkley lay low for a while and hope that the story doesn't gain traction. If it does then Kusmiss gets thrown under the bus before Meehan goes.

  4. Ken  •  Mar 12, 2012 @8:48 am

    Okay, fine. 12:45 a.m.

  5. mojo  •  Mar 12, 2012 @8:49 am

    "Hey, you in there! Your grass needs edging! Get out here and do it, now!"

  6. Jonathan Kamens  •  Mar 12, 2012 @8:58 am

    "…is _not_ something that we expect in Syria or Egypt or Iran…"

    Typo.

  7. EH  •  Mar 12, 2012 @9:39 am

    Fire both of them for cause. Take away their union benefits, so they can appreciate how normal people have to live.

    The question that keeps occurring to me in this story is, "how did he find out where the reporter lived?"

  8. CTrees  •  Mar 12, 2012 @10:27 am

    The story answers your question, EH: " Oakley, whose address is listed online…"

  9. Linus  •  Mar 12, 2012 @10:28 am

    "12:45 in the morning" is exactly the same as "12:45 a.m.", so Ken's original structure is fine. Nothing like misguided pedantry.

    I can't help but think of xkcd's "Someone is wrong on the internet!" guy, but with a gun and a badge. Leaving aside the thuggery, the "story" was so dadgum important that it can't wait until morning? Really? What are you, 12?

    I fear the 12-year-old tyrant almost as much as the moral do-gooder tyrant.

  10. SPQR  •  Mar 12, 2012 @10:44 am

    Thugs be thugs.

  11. Cathy  •  Mar 12, 2012 @11:14 am

    I don't know. I certainly get the "WTF YOU DID WHAT???" outrage. And I get why this egregious error of judgment creates the concern that his judgment could be subsequently misplaced in the future.

    But Meehan seems to be awakening to the "OMG I DID WHAT???" realization, and if he fully does, and if he's sufficiently contrite, I'm not sure I'd necessarily want his head. I'd like to see how capably he's managed the department and what his overall track record has been towards citizen civil liberties. If it's generally positive (or, hell, even generally tolerable) I think a second chance could be appropriate. I'm way more concerned by the police who do vastly worse things with vastly less regret. They are the ones who need the stiffest sanctions.

    On the other hand, some sanction would still be appropriate in order for it to have a deterrent effect on other wayward police chiefs who might be tempted to do the same thing on their watch. But it should be a sanction that's balanced and merciful and not one-sized-fits-all-scorched-earth-punitive. The criminal justice system could really stand to benefit from a lot more of that kind of tempered reaction in general, and I think that's true even here.

  12. Sean Connery  •  Mar 12, 2012 @11:45 am

    I'm not sure what Kusmiss really deserves by way of punishment here. It's not clear that this is an illegal practice; I suppose it could be considered harassment, but that might be a stretch. Perhaps I'm missing something, and if Kusmiss was obeying an unlawful order, then she deserves punishment.

    Short of that, I'm not sure that we want officers to substitute their own judgment for their orders.

  13. C. S. P. Schofield  •  Mar 12, 2012 @1:22 pm

    Michael Meehan should be tarred, feathered, and ridden out of town on a rail. The real pity is that, with all the self-identified Liberals and Activists in the Berkeley area, it seems unlikely that any of them have the necessary guts.

  14. steve  •  Mar 12, 2012 @1:22 pm

    I think Sgt. Kusmiss should be disciplined but only lightly. My reasoning is that if she would have absolutely refused her orders then she would have at least potentially paid a heavy career price while actually saving her boss from his current troubles. Her carrying out the orders has exposed her boss to the criticism he deserves. I consider this an important point.

    I would say that given the knowledge she knew she wouldn't actually use force, her ideal response would have been to lodge a complaint with someone like the internal affairs department and carry out her orders.

  15. Ken  •  Mar 12, 2012 @1:59 pm

    Not only should both Meehan and Kusmiss be fired, both should forfeit their LEO commissions (in other words, they never get to take a public paycheck for wearing a public badge anywhere again). Both of them. The Nuremberg defense is nonsensical.

    Pour encourager les autres. Way past time. For evidence, spend a day or two reading Radley Balko.

  16. EH  •  Mar 12, 2012 @3:00 pm

    steve: why would the union have sided with the chief in your scenario? they're the gatekeepers for the process you're talking about. Also, she doesn't have to obey illegal orders.

  17. EH  •  Mar 12, 2012 @3:03 pm

    Cathy: that he would even countenance this behavior makes him a bad cop. Good riddance to bad trash, if he's allowed to continue in his position it will poison the whole department. You can't claim "one bad apple" when they're sitting at the top, much less when that apple turns out to be an onion taped to a branch.

  18. Wilhelm Arcturus  •  Mar 12, 2012 @3:38 pm

    Now if only somebody could have gotten him on record saying something along the lines of, "Who will rid me of this troublesome reporter?"

  19. Bruce  •  Mar 12, 2012 @4:25 pm

    There's some similarities with the TSA story this week too. The need to ensure that "accurate" information being presented about an agency by heavy-handed and misguided pressure applied by that agency.

    Both Meehan and Koshetz use the exact same phrase in their justification for stepping over the line.

  20. Jess  •  Mar 12, 2012 @5:33 pm

    I don't answer the door no matter who is knocking at that hour. If you don't have an appointment and aren't expected I don't answer the door – period. That's what the freaking phone is for.

  21. AlphaCentauri  •  Mar 12, 2012 @6:26 pm

    I don't think Kusmiss was so out of line. She had to make a decision without a lot of people to call upon for advice. It's not unreasonable for her to conclude that having a non-threatening female to go to the door of a reporter, apologize profusely, and then give him a juicy scoop was the least distasteful choice. I don't think many people become reporters if they're easily intimidated and want other people to filter information before they get it.

  22. TJIC  •  Mar 12, 2012 @8:05 pm

    @AlphaCentauri

    > I don't think Kusmiss was so out of line. She had to make a decision without a lot of people to call upon for advice.

    So you're argument is …what? The chief shouldn't be blamed for being an idiot, because there was no one around to tell a grown man not to act like a Soviet era jackbooted thug?

    Is it overly bold to suggest that PEOPLE SHOULD KNOW THIS even without advisers to remind them of it every moment of the day?

  23. Will  •  Mar 12, 2012 @8:32 pm

    cops have done a lot of f#&$#* stupid things, but wow – this guy was certainly a high achiever. Problem is disipiline is usually only for citizens, not cops. I hope he actually faces some consequences but I wouldn't count on it.

  24. Scott Jacobs  •  Mar 12, 2012 @9:08 pm

    @TJIC

    Alpha is talking about the cop, not the chief.

  25. Shylock Holmes  •  Mar 13, 2012 @3:13 am

    Meehan may also have been particularly cranky that day from having one too many people mistaking him for Willem Dafoe and telling him they loved his portrayal of the Green Goblin in Spiderman.

  26. Mark  •  Mar 13, 2012 @5:57 am

    Google has 450 hits for the exact phrase "12:45 in the morning". Don't let people talk you out of perfectly good English because they've decided to parse a 2 hundred year-old idiom literally. Everything after 12:00 midnight is both late at night and early in the morning. They aren't exclusive concepts.

    Keep in mind that "A.M." stands for Ante Meridian or "Before Noon". Not "After Midnight". ;-)

    All that said, my actual comment: the "Chief of Thugs" needs to go but the press officer just needs her backbone checked. If he stays in office that reporter gets to refer to him for the next year as "The recently-thugish Police Chief Meehan." That's only fair, right?

  27. Mandy  •  Mar 13, 2012 @6:34 am

    I have a question about police generally. Do they really not get how their presence can be deemed threatening to others, or are they being disengenuous? When judges talk like that ("any reasonable person would know that they are free to leave a traffic stop if they are just a passenger..they can just walk away") I think they are just clueless as to how everyone else lives. But are police that way? Or are they just feigning ignorance?

  28. marco73  •  Mar 13, 2012 @1:46 pm

    All you need to know about the chief you can see in his publicity photo. Four freakin stars – who does he think he is, Patton?
    You are the police chief of piss-ant Berkley, not liberator of Nazi Germany.
    This guy won't resign, and the city won't fire him. His ego is too big.
    As for Sgt. Kusmiss, come on, if you are going to work in P.R., whenever a higher up wants to skewer themselves, you just need to ask them to Google "Streisand effect." Your job is more about talking your people back in off the ledge, than following stupid orders.
    Sgt. Kusmiss may get a letter on file, but there will be absolutely no financial or career penalties.

  29. Brad  •  Mar 13, 2012 @8:35 pm

    BPD has 160 officers. That might — and I use that modifier in its most expansive sense — rate a major. More likely, assuming no padding in the supervisory ranks, that's a captain.