It’s not often that journalists collectively speak out in defense of police officers’ rights, and the reverse is just as true. So it’s all the more astonishing to see what’s happened in Berkeley: cops criticizing a bad move by their chief against a reporter. Kristin Bender reports in the Oakland Tribune.
The Berkeley police chief’s decision to order a sergeant to a reporter’s home insisting on changes to a story continued to draw heavy criticism Sunday, with the city’s police union saying they are “gravely concerned” about his actions and the impact on officers’ ability to maintain community trust.
Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan sent an armed police sergeant to Bay Area News Group reporter Doug Oakley’s home at 12:45 a.m. Friday because he wanted a story that he perceived to contain inaccuracies changed online.
First Amendment experts on Friday said Meehan’s action was “an attempt at censorship by intimidation and an abuse of power.”
Tim Kaplan, a police officer andBerkeley Police Association president, said the union “stand with our community and share in their concerns about the appearance and correctness of the chief’s orders,” in a statement released Sunday afternoon on behalf of the 160-member force.
“We are committed to providing the best possible service to the community, and protecting the constitutional rights of the citizens of Berkeley to whom we ultimately answer. We do not believe that the actions taken by Chief Meehan represent the will, spirit or sentiment of the membership of the Berkeley Police Association.”
Meehan apologized Friday, calling his actions an “overzealous attempt to make sure that accurate information is put out.”
The chief was not available for comment Sunday. In a statement, Meehan said he is planning an independent review of the department’s policies and practices on timely releases of information, which will be sent to the City Council and community.
Mayor Tom Bates could not be reached for comment late Sunday.
Oakley, 45, covers Berkeley for this newspaper chain and had reported on a meeting Thursday in which Meehan tried to explain to about 150 angry residents his department’s failure to provide information in the days after the Feb. 18 beating death of Peter Cukor, 67, outside his Berkeley hills home. Cukor allegedly was attacked by a 23-year-old Alameda man, who has been charged with murder but will undergo competency tests to determine if he can stand trial.
That night, Cukor had called the department’s nonemergency line during a period when police were ordered to respond only to 911 calls due to a potentially volatile Occupy march.
Oakley’s story posted online at 11:20 p.m. Thursday reported that Meehan apologized to the community for the slow response. Meehan though, said he apologized only for not informing the public right away. Meehan called and emailed Oakley about the story, but Oakley was asleep. After the rap at the door, Oakley changed two paragraphs in his story.
Jim Ewert, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publisher’s Association, said it wasn’t out of line that Meehan wanted the article altered, but that he ordered the sergeant to Oakley’s home for the changes.
“If the police chief believed the tone was improper or even if the facts were subject to interpretation, the appropriate response is to call the editor. Or write a letter to the editor or an (opinion piece),” Ewert said.