If a story about Berkeley’s police chief using man hours to search for his son’s stolen cell phone gave the top cop a black eye, critics are questioning not only the context but why press accounts emerged when they did.
It was back in January that 10 officers searched for the teen’s phone using its tracking software from Berkeley High School to an Oakland neighborhood, where the trail went cold.
In a story reported by the Oakland Tribune and picked up by news organizations nationwide, critics castigated the chief for spending public funds and valuable police time on what was cast as a vanity project.
Detractors included Michael Sherman, vice chair of the Berkeley Police Review Commission, who said officers are too busy responding to “crime in the streets” to chase the stolen phones of most residents.
Meehan shot back, saying larger teams of officers have been dispatched to retrieve other stolen iPhones.
He also said he was perplexed by the media’s treatment of the episode – a reaction shared by an attorney who has frequently criticized police practices. helped write the police review commission ordinance and sat on its first board.
“If it was just a kid’s cell phone, if he was just furthering a personal mission, that was not wise,” said Jim Chanin. “On the other hand, if it had sensitive information, if it contained the address of the chief, other identifying information on how to find him, I don’t think it is so off the wall for him to want to find it.”
More mystifying, he said, was how and why the January incident got wide media play at the end of May.
"It happened in January and all of a sudden it leaks out? That's the story. Why?"
Meehan, 50, has been chief of the nearly 300-member Berkeley Police Department since 2009. Raised in Southern California, he was a captain with Seattle PD when he was picked for this job in a nationwide search.
Insiders say the police union resented an “outsider” being chosen to head up the department, and that the resentment revealed itself when the organization took the unprecedented step of issuing a press release condemning Meehan for having sent an officer to a reporter’s house in March to request corrections to a story about the murder of a man in the Berkeley hills.
The lengthy, critical statement demanded “a full outside independent investigation of the events” – something Sherman acknowledged POA had never done before.
“Not to my knowledge, absolutely not,” he said.
“The business of sending a cop to a reporter’s home was a lapse in judgment,” Chanin said. “But I found the union’s crocodile tears about it somewhat suspect. When I heard the union denounce him, I knew there was more going on. That was a red flag.”
POA president Officer Tim Kaplan did not return calls seeking comment.
But a source close to the police department who requested anonymity said there are solid reasons for widespread dissatisfaction with the chief "in the whole department from the captains on down."
The alienation began when the chief arrived, called the captains and lieutenants into a meeting "and told them they should all be uncomfortable," the source said. If the increased pressure on officers had produced positive benefits, then the chief's policy might have won support, but it didn't bring constructive results, the source said.
The chief triggered irritation in the cell phone incident by going along on the search warrant," totally inappropriate since a family member was a victim in the case.
Meehan has been out of town at a training exercise.
At his swearing in, Meehan spoke directly to the force, telling them how much their work mattered, and not to fear “honest mistakes.” They would have his support, and if necessary, they would get extra training.
But he also said he expected them “to be willing to apologize” – and that is something that has not been part of the Police Officers Association culture, Chanin said.
Even critics say the department has come a long way since the 1970s, when the first police review commission was seated. Its ranks now encompass women and officers of color. If a "red squad" once investigated citizens, and a SWAT team eschewed negotiation -- a danger to officers and victims alike,m Chanin said -- they have embraced and in many cases initiated innovative approaches.
“I get very few complaints,” Chanin said. “The officers I’ve met do a good job.”
The city has contracted with an Irvine firm to review and recommend updates to the department’s media policies. The consultants will recieve $24,000 for the six-month project.