The City Council voted Tuesday night to make Jen Louis the permanent chief of the Berkeley Police Department after leading the department in an interim capacity since March 2021.
The confirmation had been on hold since November, when a fired officer sent councilmembers a cache of alleged text messages between members of the department’s bike team showing racist and anti-homeless remarks. The ex-officer, Corey Shedoudy, also claimed a sergeant, Darren Kacalek, had maintained an arrest quota system.
City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley said at the time the city would put the confirmation on hold until the texts — and whether Louis knew anything about them — were investigated, but she has since changed course and says there is enough information to act.
Two investigations are still running, one by the San Francisco-based law firm Swanson & McNamara, and another by the city’s Police Accountability Board. The board has accused the department of stalling its investigations.
Critics of Louis have laid other department issues at her feet, including what many see as over-policing of people of color. Her supporters, meanwhile, say she’s just the type of leader to right the ship, with the department grappling with a staffing crisis and crime rates nosing up to decade-long highs.
Four councilmembers — Ben Bartlett, Kate Harrison, Sophie Hahn and Mayor Jesse Arreguín — voted to push the vote until after Swanson & McNamara wrap up their investigation, which is expected to take place in July. They were edged out 5-4 by Rashi Kesarwani, Terry Taplin, Susan Wengraf, Rigel Robinson and Mark Humbert.
Seven council members ultimately voted to confirm Louis, with Bartlett and Harrison abstaining.
Louis has worked for the police department since 1999, when she was hired as a patrol officer. She has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from California State University, Hayward, and a law degree from Santa Clara University.
Williams-Ridley and Louis said in November and again Tuesday that Louis had not known about the alleged behavior and would not have stood for it if she had.
The text messages at the root of the investigation were sent between late 2019 and late 2020, when Louis was a captain and not in direct supervision of the officers and supervisors involved, Williams-Ridley said Tuesday.
“Based on the information available to me after five months of an ongoing investigation, I am confident that it is unnecessary to delay this appointment any longer,” Williams-Ridley said Tuesday.
Keeping Louis in an interim capacity has been holding up promotions elsewhere in the department, Williams-Ridley said.
Louis spoke Tuesday evening before the vote.
“I came to this department, to this city, because I recognized it as a city that had opportunities for women and minorities,” Louis said. “I’m proud to become Berkeley’s first woman police chief, first Asian American police chief, first openly gay police chief.”
“I hold myself and all members of this department to our duty to safeguard our community, treating all people with dignity and respect,” Louis said. “I have a proven record of holding accountable members of our department, individually and as a whole, to policy and law, and I will continue to do so.”
Berkeley residents, current and former city officials, business owners and officials, university students and their parents spoke for hours on Louis’s confirmation.
Several dozen people spoke over the course of several hours, roughly two-thirds opposing confirmation. Arreguín occasionally gaveled the room back into decorum when those in the room got rowdy. About 200 supporters wrote letters in support of the chief, according to Humbert’s count, and another 30 wrote in to oppose her confirmation.
“Every week we learn about fresh waves of violent crime in Berkeley,” Sagar Jethani, president of UC Berkeley parents group SafeBears, said via Zoom. “Less cops on the streets means more opportunities for the bad guys, and word has gotten out. Now this staffing crisis is connected to the chief of police role being kept as interim, because it creates a storm of instability.”
The Berkeley Police Association, the union representing city police officers and supervisors, endorsed Louis’s confirmation May 4.
Beth Roessner, CEO of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, and John Caner, CEO of the Downtown Berkeley Association, both spoke in favor of confirming Louis.
“The police are already suffering from labor shortages. Having a trusted and dedicated leader like Chief Louis in place will be imperative for filling open positions,” Roessner said.
Several UC Berkeley undergraduates were among those who spoke against confirmation.
“People overwhelmingly put their trust in an independent [Police] Accountability Board,” said Cecilia Lunaparra, a student who also sits on the city’s Environment and Climate Commission. “This decision would signal to police officers and police leaders all over the city that accountability is a secondary consideration. This would signal that holding the city hostage is possible.”
A group of police accountability advocates, including several who previously served on city commissions, sent Williams-Ridley a letter May 5 urging her to reschedule the vote until after the Police Accountability Board and Swanson & McNamara had finished their work, accusing the police department of stonewalling and the manager of overstepping for going ahead with the appointment while the board still had questions.
“Currently, it is not clear how long the alleged misconduct took place, nor how pervasive such alleged practices may be in the department,” wrote Nathan Mizell, a rent commissioner and former vice-chair of the accountability board; Brian Hofer, executive director of Secure Justice, a nonprofit organization; and Jim Chanin, a civil rights attorney who sat on the Mayor’s Fair and Impartial Policing Working Group and defended victims in the notorious “Oakland Riders” police brutality cases.
The Police Accountability Board is scheduled to take up the matter of the bike squad at its regular meeting Wednesday.
David Sprague was also confirmed Tuesday as the city’s fire chief. He has led the department as interim chief since June.