Berkeley police chief Michael Meehan faces criticism from staff

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After more than six years as the chief of Berkeley Police Department, Michael Meehan is under serious scrutiny from his officers, with recently published emails detailing the extent of the department’s frustration.

Meehan sent two departmental emails Aug. 9 and Aug. 11, respectively, acknowledging the critical results of a survey filled out by 134 staff members that year, according to documents obtained by The Daily Californian through a Public Records Act request. In both emails, Meehan stated he would be working to address these concerns, which included his inaccessibility to staff and his sometimes-slow decision-making.

“The survey results were a strong wake-up call for me, personally. It is clear that many of you feel there is a lack of leadership and clear vision for our agency,” Meehan wrote in his Aug. 11 email. “That direct feedback tells me that I am failing some members of this organization. That is unacceptable. You expect and deserve more of my time and attention and you will get it.”

Meehan also promised in the Aug. 11 email that he would share more information with his officers and spend more time with them, both in the office and in the field. While Deputy City Attorney Lynne Bourgault released the emails to the Daily Cal — which were initially obtained by Berkeleyside from an unnamed BPD staffer — the actual survey results were not disclosed.

“City employees would be reluctant to engage in open discussion and self-critical analysis and debate regarding pending matters if their communications regarding such matters would be subject to public scrutiny,” Bourgault said in a statement.

Vocal criticism

On April 22, Meehan sent out an anonymous survey — which contained 14 questions and a comment section — to his department to get feedback on his leadership and the department’s performance. Meehan said in an interview with the Daily Cal the survey will contribute to the creation of a future strategic plan that aims to align the needs of the community and the department.

The chief’s Aug. 11 email detailed initiatives that the command team intends to implement for the department. These changes include transitioning from 14 beat patrol areas to 16, discussing the provision of compensatory time for dispatchers who work overtime and maintaining staffing levels as several officers are set to retire, according to the email.

“I care about the health of our entire department and recognize the need for action,” Meehan said in his second email. “It is my responsibility to give clear direction about my vision, build trust throughout our organization, and support each of you as you carry out our shared mission.”

Meehan said officers are frustrated that the department has not been able to meet many of their requests, such as acquiring Tasers and expanding staff. In addition, Meehan said staffers felt that he should be giving them more support on these issues. Although he said it was difficult to hear the negative feedback he received, Meehan emphasized that he would be using the comments to make positive changes, both to the department and to his own leadership.

“I think everybody assumes they’re doing better than they might be,” Meehan said of his leadership. “I think any leader worth their salt has to be willing to listen to people’s concerns and address them and be responsive to them. And that’s what I’m trying to do. … It’s not fun to read, but it’s important.”

Growing disconnect

The survey results come at a time of growing discrepancy in the visions that BPD staffers and the greater Berkeley community have for Meehan’s leadership. Although officers are pushing the city to purchase Tasers, many Berkeley residents have expressed concerns that buying Tasers could lead to a misuse of the weapon against people with mental health issues.

Andrea Prichett, a founding member of Copwatch, alleged that under Meehan, the department has become increasingly militarized and opaque.

“I think that Chief Meehan has a vision for the department which is incompatible with the values that have characterized Berkeley for so long,” Prichett said, referencing Meehan’s efforts to collaborate with the Department of Homeland Security, such as through the Urban Shield program. “I think there’s a culture within the Berkeley Police Department that … is resistant to just serving the neighborhood.”

Likening Meehan to a “closed door,” Prichett added that under Meehan’s leadership, BPD has become increasingly uncommunicative and has made it very difficult to gain access to information and documents.

In spite of her criticisms of Meehan and the department, Prichett acknowledged that Meehan is in a difficult position as BPD chief.

“It’s a balancing act — definitely it’s a political position,” Prichett said. “I think that the agendas of the (Berkeley) Police Association and the agendas of the community are not the same. And the chief is supposed to achieve both.”

George Perezvelez, chair of the city’s Police Review Commission, or PRC, declined to comment on the survey and Meehan’s emails, saying he had “no business” commenting on internal affairs. Similarly, PRC commissioners Jerry Javier and Alison Bernstein also said they would not comment on the issue.

Moving forward

The Berkeley Police Association, or BPA, which represents BPD officers, is working internally to address concerns brought up by the survey, according to BPA President Chris Stines.

“We are … always striving to improve the function of the police department through a process of (sometimes tough) self evaluation,” Stines said in an email.

In addition to the internal survey to BPD staffers, Meehan said the command team also plans to send out a similar external survey to the general community to evaluate what the public would like to see from BPD for the department’s strategic plan. Although Meehan said he is unsure of when the strategic plan will be finalized, he hopes it will be released by the end of the year.

Meehan said he would be interested in learning whether other police departments have conducted a survey similar to BPD’s. The department, Meehan said, is unique in its efforts to collect internal feedback to improve its force.

“We are an agency that’s willing to be self-critical, and whatever’s directed at me, I’m willing to listen to and to improve,” Meehan said.

Chantelle Lee covers crime and courts. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ChantelleHLee.