By Doug Oakley
Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan apologized during a March 9 public meeting night for not getting enough information to the public in the days after the Feb. 18 beating death of a Berkeley hills man, a mistake that he said "left the impression that something different should have happened and which increased fear in the community unnecessarily."
Meehan spoke to about 150 angry residents at Northbrae Community Church in a meeting hosted by City Councilwoman Susan Wengraf and Councilman Laurie Capitelli called so the chief could answer questions about the police response to the beating death of 67-year-old Peter Cukor. The Alameda County district attorney's office has charged 23-year-old Daniel Dewitt with one count of murder. Dewitt's parents say he
suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and they were afraid he would one day hurt someone or himself.
Following the death, police said they did not respond to a first call for help from Cukor that came in on the non-emergency line because they were only responding to calls classified as priority one emergencies.
Cukor's first call for help was labeled a priority two call and put in a queue because the department was changing patrol configurations to keep an eye on an Occupy Oakland march that was set to come into the city that night, Meehan said. Police responded immediately to a second 911 call 14 minutes later at 9:01 p.m. by Cukor's wife who said her husband was being beaten, Meehan said.
The first officer arrived at 9:08 p.m. and police arrested Dewitt at 9:22 p.m., Meehan said. He was not far from the Cukors' house and covered in blood, court records say.
Meehan said it was unfortunate that the first call for help from Cukor was not an emergency call.
The chief said "I am not going to suggest the victim did anything wrong," by calling the non-emergency line first to report a trespasser.
Meehan said at the time Cukor's first call came in, there was one team of 12 officers on the streets of Berkeley and another 24 inside the police station getting ready to go. With just one team covering the entire city, they were only responding to emergency calls until the other two teams of 12 came on duty.
Meehan acknowledged that a storm of speculation concerning the department's response in emergencies arose because his department did not immediately address media reports that one officer offered to respond to the initial call for help but was told not to go. He said the first Cukor call for help was in line with another call labeled priority two suspicious circumstance, and if an officer was available he may have been sent to that call instead of Cukor's.
"It is true we prioritize calls because no police department can respond to everything immediately, but we always have enough officers on hand for emergencies," Meehan said. "We always respond to emergencies as a first responsibility."
Meehan said the media version of the police response was inaccurate but the lack of information coming out of the police department did not help.
"The media have said the department blamed Occupy Oakland and that this could have been prevented if the officer was allowed to go up the hill," Meehan said. "Not one of those is true, and the family is left with this impression that he could have been saved. That, said there is blame for this. That blame is left with me. Bloggers and commentators found an angle that was interesting, but it got way out ahead of us. Once we got behind the media curve, we couldn't catch up. That's my fault and I accept full responsibility for that.
"We are going to do a much better job of getting information out," Meehan continued. "It's not the media's job to have to dig the information out of us."
Asked what she thought of the chain of events leading up to Cukor's death, Wengraf called it a "double tragedy."
"I see this as a perfect storm," Wengraf said. "A confluence of events. It's a double tragedy because this young man didn't get the mental help he needed and now Peter Cukor is dead. In the best of all worlds we could get the police staffing that we need."
Meanwhile, a judge will hear a mental competency report in the case on March 22. Dewitt has not yet entered a plea.
Doug Oakley coves Berkeley. Contact him at 510-843-1408.