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Berkeley chief apologizes for sending officer to reporter's house

Chief Michael Meehan sent the sergeant to Bay Area News Group reporter Doug Oakley's Berkeley home about 1 a.m. Friday to ask for changes to a story. Sgt. Mary C. Kusmiss, who works with the media, was apologetic about her visit, Oakley said.

March 11, 2012|By Paloma Esquivel, Los Angeles Times

Berkeley's police chief apologized Saturday for sending a sergeant to a reporter's house in the middle of the night to request changes to a story.

Chief Michael Meehan sent the sergeant to Bay Area News Group reporter Doug Oakley's Berkeley home about 1 a.m. Friday to ask for changes to a story about a community meeting. The meeting had been called so that Meehan could address growing outrage over the department's response to an incident that ended with the beating death of a 67-year-old man.

"It was just a big error on my part," Meehan said. "I'm clearly in the wrong and I'm falling on my sword because I put Doug in an awkward position and I shouldn't have done it."

Oakley's story was posted online just before midnight Thursday. About an hour later, his wife woke him to say a police officer was at the door, Oakley said. He thought at the time that something might have happened to his sister, who lives nearby.

Sgt. Mary C. Kusmiss, who regularly works with the media, was apologetic about her visit, Oakley said. She told him the chief took issue with the story's characterization of an apology he made during the community meeting.

"My first reaction was more mortified that I got something wrong on a big story," Oakley said. "But something deeper down just started bothering me. My wife and I were both thinking, 'This is really inappropriate and unprofessional and scary.'"

After reviewing his notes, the reporter agreed that he could have better characterized the apology and changed the story in the morning.

Meehan called the reporter at 7 a.m. to say he did not see the new version. The chief was apologetic for sending the sergeant, Oakley said, but continued to call and email him throughout the day asking for more changes in the story and headline. Oakley declined to make those additional changes because the details were accurate, he said.

"He was apologetic but was still pushing, pushing, pushing. I've never really encountered that," Oakley said. "One of my editors said, 'Doug, this police chief abused his power to intimidate you, and that's wrong.' And that about sums it up."

Oakley's story was written after a meeting in which Meehan responded to growing anger over the department's failure to respond to the call of 67-year-old Peter Cukor, who was beaten to death minutes later. Police responded when Cukor's wife called a second time.

Oakley initially wrote that the chief had apologized for both the department's failure to get information to the public after the slaying and the department's actions leading up to it. Meehan said he'd apologized only for the failure to get information to the public.

In a statement Saturday, interim City Manager Christine Daniel said there was no justification for the chief's decision to send the sergeant to Oakley's home.

"The chief has acknowledged his lapse in judgment and assured me that nothing like this will happen again," Daniel said. She also said the chief is planning an independent review of the department's "policies and practices regarding timely releases of information."

Meehan said he sent an email apology to the reporter late Friday.

"It was the very least I could do," Meehan said. "I value my relationship with Doug, he even lives in the city. To the extent that I might have hurt that, it's hard on me.... This incident here is completely of my own making."

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

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