A headshot of Berkeley Police Chief Jen Louis
Berkeley Police Chief Jen Louis took over as interim chief in March 2021 and has been with the department for nearly 25 years. Credit: City of Berkeley

Whichever way the city is leaning on its interim fire and police chiefs, final decisions appear to still be up in the air.

The council held a closed session Thursday to discuss “public employee appointments,” specifically chief of police and fire chief. Before the session began, Mayor Jesse Arreguín announced there would be no reportable action taken during the session.

Roughly two-dozen city residents joined the meeting in person or by Zoom, mostly to weigh in on whether the city should make Interim Police Chief Jen Louis’s position permanent.

Louis’s confirmation was put on hold after former police officer Corey Shedoudy, who was fired in 2021, alleged in November that Sgt. Darren Kacalek had instituted a quota system in the department’s bike unit, and made derogatory remarks about homeless residents and people of color. Louis has now led the department for over two years, notwithstanding the “interim” in her title.

Berkeley police bike patrol officers
Berkeley police Sgt. Darren Kacalek, center, stands with members of the department’s Bike Detail. Kacalek is under investigation after allegedly making derogatory comments and maintaining an arrest quota for the unit. Credit: BPD

The city’s Police Accountability Board has been studying the allegations, and the city has hired San Francisco-based law firm Swanson and McNamara LLP to conduct an investigation, a $50,000 contract, according to city records. That investigation remains ongoing.

Despite the mention of “appointments” in the council’s agenda, closed sessions such as these can involve a number of different topics, including discipline, performance and complaints, in addition to new appointments, according to state law.

But the fact that the council is deliberating at all has grated Louis’s detractors, as well as some of the city’s own accountability officials who are still studying Shedoudy’s allegations. Some questioned whether Louis, who was interim chief just a few months before Shedoudy’s firing, knew of Kacalek’s alleged activity. City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said in November an “initial inquiry” had shown Louis had no knowledge of the alleged behavior.

“The importance of a public investigation from an independent body for something as vile as the viciously racist and anti-homeless texts, arrest quotas, and blatantly discriminatory practices by the PD is absolutely essential to maintain any public trust in the department,” Cecilia Lunaparra, president of the Cal Berkeley Democrats student organization, said at Thursday’s meeting.

According to the city charter, the city manager is responsible for appointing department heads, subject to an approval by affirmative votes from at least five City Council members. There was no vote scheduled Thursday.

The charter also requires the city manager to “consult with the Police Accountability Board” when selecting a chief.

Berkeley police bike patrol officers
Berkeley police bike patrol officers. Photo: BPD

Nathan Mizell, a former vice chair of the Police Accountability Board, and now a city rent commissioner, said at Thursday’s meeting that “it is abundantly clear from our charter that the spirit and the letter require the city to allow the PAB to finish its investigation before moving forward.”

Whatever Swanson and McNamara’s investigation turns up, the council should also wait on the Police Accountability Board’s review, Mizell said.

Hansel Aguilar, the city’s director of police accountability, echoed that sentiment.

“We believe it is important to ensure that the investigations are completed and the findings are made public before making any decisions about a permanent appointment,” Aguilar said via Zoom at Thursday’s meeting.

John Caner, the CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association, cautioned that the city might risk losing a strong chief by further delays, and may already have contributed to the department’s ongoing morale and staffing issues.

“Chief Louis is doing a great job, we’ve seen her in the business community. She’s been very proactive,” Caner said, also joining Thursday’s meeting by Zoom. “If we want to protect the safety of our community, we have got to rebuild our police department, and we have got to start at the top … please don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Let’s move forward.”

Louis took over as interim chief in March 2021, roughly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, when then-Chief Andrew Greenwood retired. Under her tenure the department rolled out its data transparency hub, where the department publishes various data such as calls for service, uses of force, and crime statistics.

Under Louis, the department also overhauled the focus of its traffic enforcement in an attempt to address racial disparities in drivers pulled over by officers, although critics say the changes have not had the desired effect.

Louis has worked for the police department for nearly a quarter century, starting in 1999. She became a captain in 2016.

The City Council has a regular meeting April 25 and, as the agenda stood as of Friday, has no intention of taking up the matter of appointing police or fire chiefs. Nor are there any appointments scheduled for its discussion at its closed session Monday.

Interim Fire Chief David Sprague has led the city fire department since June, when then-Chief Abraham Roman retired.

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Alex N. Gecan joined Berkeleyside in 2023 as a senior reporter covering public safety. He has covered criminal justice, courts and breaking and local news for The Middletown Press, Stamford Advocate and...