It is not surprising that recent actions by Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan have been met by calls for his resignation. It is some comfort that, in these days of rampant police misconduct, it is still considered outrageous when a police chief sends a police officer to the door of a reporter to demand that a story be changed.
It is always bad news when police take action against the written word. There are some of us in the Bay Area who remember the story of former San Francisco Police Chief Richard Hongisto who lost his job as chief after ordering the disposal of stacks of the SF Bay Times that had a rather compromising picture of him on the front cover. If there are any standards of fairness or equity, Meehan also should lose his job.
Berkeley’s city leaders may choose to send a message that they are such strong defenders of the constitution that they would be willing to fire a cop who violates first amendment press protections, but then, what about the rest of the first amendment?
The Berkeley Police Association was concerned enough about “protecting the constitutional rights of the citizens of Berkeley” that its president, Tim Kaplan, issued a public statement criticizing the chief. But why was the BPA moved to write a public letter and become so suddenly concerned for the sanctity of the Bill of Rights? Where was their worry when BPD officers were bashing peaceful students in front of Wheeler Hall in 2009? What concern did they express about Occupy Berkeley having their political meetings busted up by armed thugs who continued to physically attack and provoke them throughout the night of December 23, 2011 and beyond.
It is rumored that there is a significant number of officers in the department with no confidence in the chief. There are others, however, who believe that the fact that Chief Meehan is from out of state and unconnected to the “good ol’ boy” network within BPD makes it actually possible for him to challenge the existing structures of power within the department. Remember that back in 2007 when the evidence theft scandal was uncovered, the BPD brass and city council worked to ensure that a real investigation about possible drug dealing within BPD never took place. Maybe an outsider could shake that up and get rid of corrupt cops.
Governing structures and long standing relations are not easily changed by someone from within. Set this next to BPD’s incredible violence at Marine Recruiter protests, UC and city of Berkeley demonstrations, and even it’s actions in Oakland, and it is hard to accept that the BPA is sincere in its defense of the constitution.
The chief seems to be a sensitive guy, sometimes. It seems he was sensitive to the fact that if he allowed a story to be published that seemed to be criticizing the police response to the February 18 murder of Peter Cukor, he could be facing a lawsuit. From several directions. He might be perceived as “evaluating” job performance publicly and this, of course, is not allowed. This might be why he was so desperate to change that story and working so hard to get it right.
However, if the chief of police really can’t see how a reporter (or anyone) might respond to the sight of a cop at their front door in the middle of the night, is to really lack any sensitivity to the people you are supposed to be serving. . If Chief Meehan knows it is wrong and sent Sgt. Kusmiss anyway, then he is a thug, too. If he sent Sgt. Kusmiss and didn’t know that this could be considered invasive at midnight, he is hopelessly out of touch.
Chief, that is only the tip of the iceberg. Reporters and common folk don’t jump with joy at the sight of the police. Many thousands of law abiding, solid, everyday people fear them. A chief should know that. If you don’t recognize that first, you will never have the trust of the people. Without trust, what is a police department, really?