Two months ago, Interim Berkeley Police Chief Jen Louis’ rise to the top of the department’s ranks seemed just about complete. The City Manager had tapped her for the permanent job, and a confirmation vote by the City Council, planned for a meeting in mid-November, was shaping up to be uneventful.
Now, though, two scandals are threatening to derail that ascent.
The first arrived days before the council meeting, when a former Berkeley police officer released dozens of text messages that included offensive comments purportedly sent by the head of the city’s police union and claimed that Louis had failed to thoroughly investigate the matter. Louis has said she wasn’t aware of the messages until they were leaked, but the charge led city officials to pause her appointment as an outside investigator looks into the text messages and what she may have known about them.
Then, last week, the Los Angeles Times published a story detailing past allegations of sexual harassment that three lower-ranking officers made against Louis.
An investigator in 2017 determined that comments Louis made to one of the officers violated the city’s sexual harassment policy, the Times reported, while the inquiry found the other two officers’ claims were unsubstantiated. Former Berkeley Police Chief Andrew Greenwood recommended Louis be suspended for five days for the comments — but she appealed the discipline to City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley, who reduced it to a written reprimand for “unprofessional conduct,” according to a document reviewed by Berkeleyside.
“The sexual harassment allegations made against me in 2017 were false,” Louis wrote in a statement her attorney provided to Berkeleyside this week. “I was fully cleared five years ago after a thorough appeal hearing that included presentation of considerable witness evidence the investigator failed to include or obtain during his examination.”
Two councilmembers reached this week said they want to learn more about the allegations and investigation before deciding whether to confirm Louis as the department’s next chief.
“I don’t feel I have enough information,” said Councilmember Sophie Hahn, who called the reports concerning. “I’d like to have a full picture.”
Councilmember Ben Bartlett said, “I don’t have enough information to comment” on whether Louis should become chief.
Information wasn’t shared with City Council
Mayor Jesse Arreguín, Hahn and Bartlett all said they learned about the allegations against Louis from the Times’ Dec. 28 story, and had not been told about them at any point during the chief search process.
Along with the scrutiny of Louis’ conduct, the disclosure is also raising questions about whether Williams-Ridley — the top city government official who chose Louis to be the department’s next chief and initially sought to press forward with her confirmation despite the text message scandal — should have told councilmembers about the allegations.
A city spokesperson did not respond to questions from Berkeleyside this week asking why information about Louis’ discipline wasn’t shared, or whether the city manager plans to release further information about it.
Louis’ attorney, Alison Berry Wilkinson, said the disciplinary action was expunged from her record after she completed required training and was not subject to new complaints, which meant that Williams-Ridley could not have shared the information.
Bartlett said Williams-Ridley told him recently that “her hands were tied by state law, so she was unable to discuss the matter.” He took issue with that restriction, saying it “tilts power against victims and stifles transparency.”
In a statement to Berkeleyside this week, Arreguín wrote, “This is a confidential personnel matter that did not rise to the council level as there was no lawsuit or claim filed. These types of matters are handled at the city manager/administrative level as they relate to the conduct of employees under the city manager’s authority.”
Comments at party led to discipline
The discipline stemmed from comments Louis made while at a barbecue with members of the department’s SWAT team in 2017, when she was a captain. According to the Times, an officer alleged that Louis told her child to throw a water balloon at the officer because she was wearing a white tank top; at another point, during a group conversation about breastfeeding, the officer claimed that Louis said she has to “fuck around with the nipple” if her baby doesn’t latch on, then turned to the officer and said, “you know what that’s like.”
Wilkinson said, “there was nothing sexual” about Louis’ comments.
“She was pointing out people at the party based on their attire and telling the children to throw water balloons at them,” Wilkinson said. The breastfeeding comment had been directed at other new mothers in the group conversation, she said, not at the officer who filed a complaint.
In a 2018 letter following Louis’ appeal of her suspension, Williams-Ridley wrote that she had violated the department’s “respect among employees” policy, and that her statements “were outside the bounds of acceptable behavior of a police captain.” Wilkinson provided the letter to a reporter on the condition that it not be published in full.
The Times report also mentioned another officer’s allegation that Louis retaliated against her after she denied a romantic advance, which investigators found was not substantiated; a third officer claimed that Louis supervised her at a time when the two of them were in a romantic relationship, but never filed a complaint about the conduct.
“The investigator cleared her of all these allegations,” Wilkinson said.
For now, the vote to confirm Louis as the permanent police chief remains on hold indefinitely as the investigation into the text message scandal unfolds, and she continues to lead the department as its interim chief. Wilkinson said Louis “is hopeful that people will judge her on what she has done in the role, and not on gossip and innuendo and rumors that turned out not to be true.”