BERKELEY -- The city is spending $20,000 to review its police department's media policies after the chief was widely criticized for sending a sergeant to a reporter's home in the middle of the night to ask for changes to an online story.
Cornerstone Communications in Irvine will spend the next six months auditing the department's policies and procedures on releasing public information and making certain the department is following state requirements for disclosure, said company founder Bill Rams. The contract also allows the city to reimburse Cornerstone for up to $4,000 in expenses.
"The goal here is to learn and for the police department to do the best it can," said Rams, a former investigative reporter for the Orange County Register.
The move comes more than two months after Chief Michael Meehan ordered department spokeswoman Sgt. Mary Kusmiss to the home of Bay Area News Group reporter Doug Oakley at 12:45 a.m. to ask that he change a story. The March 9 action was criticized by First Amendment experts who called Meehan's actions "an attempt at censorship by intimidation and an abuse of power."
Meehan later apologized for the move, which came as the department was facing scrutiny for its response to a Feb. 18 "suspicious person" call that resulted in the bludgeoning death of a 67-year-old Berkeley hills resident.
"We will also assess our training needs and conduct relevant training to ensure we are confidently providing
Under the contract, inked May 1, Cornerstone will compare Berkeley's policies and procedures to other police departments, scrutinize the department's website content for transparency, and ask reporters for input on how the department can improve press relations.
"Obviously, for the police department to learn about its strength and weaknesses in terms of working with the media, it would be helpful to have the media's input," Rams said. "We certainly hope the media will participate."
After the review, Cornerstone hopes to teach police brass and department representatives how it can improve delivery of information and respond to public records requests in a timely and appropriate manner.
It's the second review following the Meehan's order to visit Oakley's home.
City Manager Christine Daniel announced March 16 that the city had hired San Francisco law firm Rennie Sloan Holtzman Sakai to investigate, but never said when the probe would be completed. She has not responded to requests for updates. Department spokeswoman Mary Kay Clunies-Ross said in an email Thursday that she could not provide information on the probe, calling it a personnel issue.
Jim Ewert, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publisher's Association, said a recent court case about an investigation into a school superintendent for misconduct sided with the public's right to know.
"When you are dealing with a high level employee or public official, it's important for the public to understand the allegations made against the individual and how the agency handled its response to the allegations," Ewert said.
However, Ewert said the city could claim attorney-client privilege if the city attorney ordered the probe and disclosure would constitute unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.