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Berkeley chief sending officer to reporter’s home in bid to change story upsets police union

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POSTED March 12, 2012 7:49 p.m.

BERKELEY  (AP) — In another city, getting tough with a journalist might not bring a police chief the same strong reaction as it has in Berkeley, home of the 1960s Free Speech Movement and a population with a distinctly liberal bent.

Perhaps as a result, Police Chief Michael Meehan spent much of the weekend apologizing for what he called his "error in judgment" while ordering his department's spokeswoman to go to the home of a Bay Area News Group reporter at 12:45 a.m. Friday to request changes to an article published less than two hours earlier.

However, the chief's mea culpa did not prevent the city's police union from making clear that its 160 members were offended by Meehan's actions.

"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," Berkeley Police Association president Tim Kaplan said in the statement issued Sunday. "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."

The reporter, Doug Oakley, 45, told the San Francisco Chronicle his family was asleep when Sgt. Mary Kusmiss' showed up at his door, and that he suffered a panic attack following her unexpected visit. Kusmiss, who regularly interacts with the news media, told Oakley the chief had ordered her to go to the reporter's house when efforts to reach him by telephone and email were unsuccessful.

Meehan was unhappy with how Oakley had characterized one of his remarks from a Thursday night community meeting about the Feb. 18 beating death of a resident whose non-emergency call about an intruder had gone unanswered.

Oakley initially reported the chief had said he was sorry officers had not responded to Peter Cukor's call, but the chief said he only apologized for not releasing information about the slaying and the department's handling of it more quickly.

"My first reaction was more mortified that I got something wrong on a big story," Oakley told the Los Angeles Times adding that he first thought Kusmiss was there to tell him something bad had happened to a relative.

"But something deeper down just started bothering me." he said. "My wife and I were both thinking, 'This is really inappropriate and unprofessional and scary.'"

After consulting his notes, Oakley agreed he could have better characterized the chief's comment and updated two paragraphs of his story as soon as he could later Friday morning. Meehan kept calling him throughout the day seeking more changes, which Oakley declined to make.

"He was apologetic but was still pushing, pushing, pushing. I've never really encountered that," Oakley told the Times. "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."

First Amendment experts criticized Meehan's actions as an inappropriate use of police authority that could be interpreted as an attempt at censorship and intimidation.

Meehan was named Berkeley's police chief in December 2009. Before that, he spent 23 years with the Seattle Police Department.

In hindsight, he said he can see why sending a staff member to a reporter's home was ill-advised.

"I have apologized to the reporter personally and I take full responsibility for this error in judgment," he said in a statement. "I was frustrated with the department's ability to get out timely information, but that is no excuse."

Neither Oakley nor his bosses plan to pursue the matter, Bert Robinson, the Bay Area News Group's managing editor, said Monday

"It happened, the chief apologized," Robinson said. "We are ready to move on, I think."

The Bay Area News Group includes 12 newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area, including the Oakland Tribune, where Oakley works. The Chronicle is not part of the chain.


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