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Berkeley Police Chief Michael Meehan said at a community forum tonight that the recent death of a Berkeley hills homeowner at the hands of an apparently mentally ill intruder “has been a very difficult case for us.” But Meehan said he thinks his officers responded appropriately to the situation that led to the death of 67-year-old business management consultant Peter Cukor outside his home at 2 Park Gate Road the night of Feb. 18 and blamed the news media for spreading information that he said was “not accurate or true.” Meehan told about 125 people at the forum at the Northbrae Community Church that it’s not true that an Occupy Wall Street march from Oakland to Berkeley that night prevented police from responding more quickly to a non-emergency call by Cukor at 8:47 p.m. reporting that there was a strange man on his property.
Meehan said he kept a large contingent of officers near police headquarters at 2100 Martin Luther King Jr. Way because there were reports that Occupy protesters would try to take over the building but he said there were enough officers available to respond to emergencies elsewhere in the city. The chief said police had no way of knowing that the intruder, 23-year-old Daniel Jordan Dewitt, would wind up attacking Cukor with a flower pot, saying, “We don’t know the future.” Dewitt, who grew up in Alameda and was living at a residential hotel in Oakland, has been charged with murder for Cukor’s death but his case has been suspended so that a report on his mental competency can be conducted.
His parents have said that he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic five years ago. Berkeley City Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, who hosted the forum along with Councilman Laurie Capitelli, said she thinks the incident was “a perfect storm” and “a double tragedy” because she believes Dewitt needed help but the mental health system let him fall through the cracks. “If there’s a villain in this case it’s the mental health system,” said Wengraf, who represents the district where the crime occurred. Meehan said it’s true that at 8:59 p.m. one of his officers, who was located downtown, offered to respond to Cukor’s non-emergency call but was told by a dispatcher not to go. But he said even if the officer had responded at 8:59 p.m. he wouldn’t have gotten to Cukor’s home by 9:01 p.m., when Cukor’s wife made an emergency call to report that Dewitt was attacking him, as the officer was at least five minutes away.
Meehan said the first officer to respond arrived at the scene at 9:08 p.m. and Dewitt was arrested at 9:22 p.m. After Cukor reported that a strange man was on his property, he walked across the street to a Berkeley fire station to see if firefighters could help him deal with the intruder but Meehan said no one was there because firefighters had responded to a two-story structure fire at 646 Vincente Ave., several miles away. Dewitt then confronted and fatally attacked Cukor when he returned to his home, according to a police report on the incident. In response to a question from a community member, Meehan said it’s not clear why Dewitt wound up at Cukor’s home or how he got there. “We don’t know what was in his mind,” Meehan said.
The chief said Dewitt told police that he walked to the site from Oakland and police tend to believe him because he didn’t have a bus ticket. According to a police report on the incident Dewitt told investigators that he was looking for “his fiancie Zoey” but his father told reporters that “Zoey” was a figment of his imagination. In response to several questions on the subject from community members, Meehan said he thinks he had enough officers on duty that night to deal with emergency situations.
Talking about police staffing in general, Meehan said the Berkeley Police Department, like many police departments, is smaller than it was 10 or 20 years ago but he said there are just as many patrol officers on duty in Berkeley as there were in the past. He said his department is authorized to have 176 officers and is now down to 164 officers but he plans to get back up to 176 officers by the end of the summer. At the end of the meeting, which seemed to placate many but not all of the concerned community members in attendance, Wengraf said, “This whole ordeal has been extremely trying for all of us. It’s been a challenging time.”
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