Berkeley Police Department announced it will be audited by a communications company in a department effort to curtail criticism regarding its media policies, following a March incident when a department spokesperson was ordered to a Bay Area reporter’s home in the middle of the night to ask for changes in an online article.
The city will spend up to $24,000 for Irvine-based Cornerstone Communications to audit the department’s policies beginning this month and continuing until October, at which time the department can choose to extend the process. The department was widely criticized when Chief Michael Meehan sent spokesperson Sgt. Mary Kusmiss to Oakland Tribune reporter Doug Oakley’s home at 12:45 a.m. on March 9.
Oakley had published a story about a March 8 town hall meeting at which Meehan addressed the department’s response on Feb. 18 when Berkeley resident Peter Cukor was killed. Though Oakley ended up making changes to the story, he later admitted he had been intimidated by the house call.
Interim City Manager Christine Daniel announced in a statement in March that the city had initially begun investigations and hired a San Francisco-based law firm, Renne Sloan Holtzman Sakai, to look into the incident.
The department first initiated the involvement of the outside firm to support and review the department’s media and training policies, Kusmiss said in an email.
According to the contract the department signed with the company, the department’s policies and transparency, along with its timeliness in filing items like public records requests and responses to media inquiries, will be compared to those of similar small-sized local agencies, and attempts will be made to improve them.
Bill Rams, co-founder of Cornerstone Communications, said the company’s job will also involve communication with local media outlets and city residents about how well the department has performed on press-related issues citywide.
“Our goal is to help the police department do the best job it can in providing information to the public and working with the media,” Rams said.
Councilmember Gordon Wozniak said that given changes to the media and the general news cycle in the past decade, it was about time for the department’s policies to be reviewed.
“Media has changed a lot in the last 10 years with email, Twitter and blogs,” Wozniak said. “I don’t think we have had (a review) of the policies in the past decade since I have been on the council — something like this should be done on a regular basis.”
The company will conduct interviews with the department’s senior management and public information team, which includes Kusmiss, and give its first round of recommendations in about two months, according to the contract.
Kusmiss said in the email that some questions that might be addressed include how the department has changed over the years and whether a “40 hour a week PIO can cover 168 hours of incidents, issues and crime.”
View the contract here:
Anjuli Sastry is an assistant news editor.