Berkeley Police Department. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The Berkeley Police Department sergeant who leads the city’s police union pressured officers under his command to increase the number of arrests they made and sent them derisive comments about unhoused residents and people of color, according to text messages shared by one of the officers.

The leaked messages drew condemnation Monday, as well as calls for the City Council to postpone a vote planned for Tuesday to appoint a new police chief until an investigation into the sergeant’s conduct is complete.

Berkeley City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley wrote in an email to members of the City Council that the matter, which she called “very disturbing,” will be investigated. Officials plan to hire “an external investigator to verify and investigate any and all documentation and allegations arising from this complaint,” city spokesman Matthai Chakko wrote in a statement Monday.

A former Berkeley police officer, Corey Shedoudy, sent screenshots of the texts to Mayor Jesse Arreguín and the City Council on Thursday, along with an email alleging that Sgt. Darren Kacalek ordered members of the department’s Downtown Task Force and Bike Detail to meet what Shedoudy described as “arrest quotas” focused on homeless residents.

The messages became public on Monday, when the Oakland advocacy group Secure Justice posted them to its website.

Kacalek, a 20-year veteran of the department and president of the Berkeley Police Association, could not be reached Monday. The association did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Berkeley police fired Shedoudy in August of 2021; information about what led to his firing was not immediately available, and according to Shedoudy’s message he is challenging his termination in the arbitration process. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

The text messages, several dozen of which were attached to Shedoudy’s email, appear to show snippets of conversations from a group thread that included Kacalek and other Berkeley police officers, at least some of whom were members of both the downtown and bicycle units, which he supervised.

In one message, sent in September of 2020, a person identified as Kacalek in the conversation complained that a press release about an arrest did not note the race of the suspect, writing, “I guess he isn’t black or no one could decipher his race and he isn’t homeless or even unhoused, just no address. #iwantthecoldhardtruth.” A month earlier, the same person had shared a meme of a Craigslist post listing a “white privilege card” for sale, with the poster complaining that it had not gotten them “welfare checks” or “free housing,” and that he would trade it for “a race card.”

In another undated message, the person identified as Kacalek joked about “a new strain that wipes out the homeless pop,” and added, “we will just ride by the bodies.” It’s unclear what he was referring to, as the screenshot did not show other messages in the conversation.

Shedoudy alleged in his email that Kacalek directed the units to make 100 arrests per month, “using questionable legal tactics that included stop and frisk, probation searches with no reasonable suspicion of a crime, and a very loose interpretation of stay-away orders from UC Berkeley.”

The text messages do not contain explicit references to a monthly arrest quota. But there are several messages in which the person identified as Kacalek stressed the importance of arrest numbers.

“81 arrests! We can do 19 by Friday for sure,” the person wrote in a text from November 2019.

When Shedoudy wrote in another instance that the task force should focus more on solving local businesses’ “pain points” rather than making a specific number of arrests, the person identified as Kacalek responded, “For sure Corey but numbers are a way of quantifying it as we move to really solving long term problems.”

Shedoudy wrote that he has “hundreds” more text messages, emails and other documents that he plans to release in the future.

Professor: Texts show ‘total disregard for people’s rights’

Community leaders were quick to denounce the text messages.

Nikki Jones, a criminology professor and chair of the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley, said the messages reflect a culture of casual bigotry that is common within police forces across the country.

“The tone of this shows a total disregard for people’s rights,” Jones said. The texts, she said, “reveal the kind of ordinary and routine ways in which officers think about the people who they’re charged with policing. Then the question is, how does that influence how officers treat people?”

Jones called for an investigation to determine to what extent the views expressed in the text messages spilled over into the routine practices of Berkeley Police.

Osha Neumann and Andrea Henson, civil rights lawyers who founded Where Do We Go Berkeley, said Berkeley’s homeless population is disproportionately Black compared to the city’s demographics. Neumann and Henson said their Black male clients, who are often most vulnerable to deeply rooted systemic racism in law enforcement, have consistently reported discrimination and harassment by police, but that these issues have gone unaddressed.

“We have heard and seen this throughout the homeless community,” Henson said. “But typically, people are not outraged when homeless people are treated this way.”

Paul Keahloa-Blake, who runs Consider the Homeless and is on the city’s homeless commission, said he isn’t surprised by the text messages.

“People say stuff like that all the time, and the only thing that’s holding them accountable [now] is the recording of it through social media,” he said.

Kealoha-Blake emphasized that the COVID-19 pandemic has plunged Berkeley’s homeless residents into an “intense crisis,” and said they are lacking crucially important services that police could provide, like a Specialized Care Unit that is still in initial stages. He called for complete accountability and transparency in response to the text messages, as well as a major focus on appropriate resources for homeless people and thorough crisis intervention training for police.

In a statement Monday, Mayor Jesse Arreguín said he was “outraged by the news of these disturbing texts and a pattern of behavior by some officers of the Berkeley Police Department. These actions are unacceptable and do not reflect our city, its values, or any standards of professional or constitutional policing.”

Councilmember Terry Taplin wrote in his own statement that he was “deeply disturbed and troubled by the recent surfacing of texts exhibiting anti-homeless and anti-Black racial bias distributed by an officer of the Berkeley Police Department.”

“This conduct is nothing short of a breach in public trust, and is beneath the values of our city, community, and the standards of our police department,” Taplin wrote.

Racial disparities in stops made by Berkeley Police have been documented for years. Reports by the Center for Police Equity and the city auditor found that Black people are stopped at much higher rates than white people and were more likely to be subject to use of force by police, though such instances are rare in Berkeley.

Since October 2020, city data shows Berkeley Police stopped more Black people than white people, even though Black people make up a smaller portion of the population in Berkeley. Black people represented 36% of traffic stops made by Berkeley police during that time, while white people made up 34% of traffic stops. These kinds of disparities are common in cities throughout the country.

Berkeley has taken steps meant to reduce racial disparities in policing. In February, the city council voted to limit low-level ticketing, and plans for reimagining public safety are in the works, including the Specialized Care Unit and a new team to handle traffic enforcement.

Calls to pause police chief hiring

The Berkeley City Council is poised to appoint the city’s next police chief on Tuesday, but the text messages and allegations in Shedoudy’s email are fueling opposition to that plan. City officials have tapped Jen Louis, an internal candidate who has been the department’s interim chief since March of 2021, to be its permanent leader.

Nathan Mizell, the vice chair of Berkeley’s Police Accountability Board, issued a statement Monday calling for the City Council to postpone Louis’ appointment until the oversight agency — which he said was not previously aware of Shedoudy’s claims — has investigated them.

“Hastily confirming the interim chief now would severely undermine public confidence in the independent oversight that Berkeley’s citizens voted for in establishing the Police Accountability Board,” Mizell wrote in a statement. “There is no conscionable way for the confirmation process to go forward tomorrow.”

Secure Justice also demanded city officials put Louis’ appointment on hold, and asked the state Department of Justice to investigate the allegations.

In her message to Berkeley’s City Council, sent sometime after Shedoudy’s email and also posted to the Secure Justice website, Williams-Ridley told the nine councilmembers that she did not see any reason to postpone Louis’ appointment. Williams-Ridley wrote that an “initial inquiry” found Louis was not aware of the messages or of Shedoudy’s allegations; she did not say when that inquiry was conducted or what it consisted of.

Neither Arreguín nor Taplin called for postponing the vote to appoint the chief in their statements.

Shedoudy alleged in his email that Louis failed to investigate Kacalek’s conduct, though he did not say whether or how the conduct was reported to Louis.

Louis wrote in a statement that she first became aware of the allegations on Thursday, and that none of the alleged conduct happened under her supervision.

“If at any point during my tenure, from officer to interim chief, I had become aware of these allegations, I would have immediately done my part to initiate an investigation,” Louis wrote.

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Nico Savidge joined Berkeleyside in 2021 as a senior reporter covering city hall. Born and raised in Berkeley, he got his start in journalism at Youth Radio as a high-schooler in the mid-2000s. Since then,...

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...

Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...