Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone makes errors of judgment.
In most cases, we apologize, fix our mistake, and move on. Since we're all fallible, folks tend to forgive and forget — or at least tolerate — the occasional error.
But some mistakes — some errors of judgment — are so egregious that they can't be forgiven or forgotten. Some mistakes show that the people who made them are unsuited for the position in which they find themselves, and cannot be trusted with the authority they wield.
Michael K. Meehan, the Chief of Police of the City of Berkeley, California, has made such a mistake. He should resign, or the Berkeley City Council should fire his ass. Now.
Chief Michael Meehan should resign, or be fired, because he has demonstrated that his instincts and inclinations are utterly incompatible with wielding police power in a nation governed by the rule of law and a constitution. See, one night last week Chief Meehan read a story that he felt misstated his position on a controversial issue. The story reported that Chief Meehan had apologized for a slow police response to an incident; Chief Meehan felt that it was more accurate to say he had apologized for the police being slow in giving an explanation for the response time.
Chief Meehan apparently tried to reach the reporter, Doug Oakley, and the news organization, the Bay Area News Group. He was unsuccessful, probably because it was late at night.
When Kusmiss knocked on Oakley's door, the journalist, his wife and their two sons, ages 3 and 5, were asleep. Oakley, whose address is listed online, thought at first that something bad had happened to a relative.
Kusmiss, in civilian clothes, told Oakley that she was mortified to be at his home but said she was given a direct order to request he change his story, the reporter said. Oakley told her that no one could post an amended article until later that morning.
Oakley said after Kusmiss left, he began shaking and had a panic attack, wondering if Meehan "can do this whenever he's mad at me, or send someone else who is not as sympathetic as Mary and threaten me." After changes were made in the story about 7 a.m. Friday, Meehan e-mailed Oakley repeatedly with requests for more alterations, Oakley said.
The officer that Chief Meehan sent to knock on a reporter's door at 12:45 a.m. was Sgt. Mary Kusmiss, a public relations officer who is nevertheless a sworn officer of the department. Though Sgt. Kusmiss says she was "mortified" to be given the order to knock on a citizen's door in the middle of the night to complain about a news story on behalf of the police department, she followed orders.
Chief Meehan now recognizes that sending officers to bang on citizens' doors in the middle of the night is, perhaps, not appropriate conduct:
Meehan apologized Friday.
"I would say it was an overzealous attempt to make sure that accurate information is put out," Meehan said. "I could have done better." Meehan said he didn't think Oakley would be upset or intimidated because the police sergeant, Mary Kusmiss, regularly deals with the media.
"I did not mean to upset (Oakley) or his family last night; it was late, (I was) tired, too. I don't dispute that it could be perceived badly," he said.
It's nice that he recognizes he erred. But it's too little, too late. Sending police to knock on reporters' doors in the middle of the night because law enforcement officials are unhappy with how they are portrayed in news stories is something that we expect in Syria or Egypt or Iran. It's not something that we expect — or should tolerate for a nanosecond — in America. I don't care if Sgt. Kusmiss was in her civvies or not: when a law enforcement officer knocks on a reporter's door at 12:45 a.m. to demand a retraction to a report, the unmistakeable message is one of thuggery, of threatened force, of official suppression. The impulse to censor is in all of us. When officials have troops and guns and power, we have a right to expect that they are capable of governing that impulse, even when they are "tired." If they cannot — if their self-control is so weak that they cannot resist sending officers to a reporter's home in the middle of the night to demand changes to a story — they clearly lack the judgment and discipline necessary to ensure that law enforcement will respect the rule of law and the United States Constitution.
Thanks for your service, Chief Meehan. But you don't have what it takes. You should resign today. If not, the City Council should fire you.
As for Sgt. Kusmiss, I'm not sure what discipline she should face. It's hard to stand up to your superiors. But she knew that what she was being asked to do was wrong, and she did it anyway. "I was just following orders" is not a defense. She's a sergeant with the police force, supposedly capable of leadership and command judgment. She failed to show it here. There should be consequences to her.
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