A horizontal painting of many hands rising up in resistance, blocking a police car. In the background, text reads "this stops today"
(Erik Ruin of Just Seeds Artists/Artists Against Police Violence)

On November 14 disturbing screen shots from a Berkeley Police Department (BPD) group chat, which included members of the Department’s downtown bike task force, were released to the public. Snapshots of the conversation reveal a culture of racism, profound anti-homeless sentiment, systemic overtime abuse, and a policy of arrest quotas, which are illegal under California law. In the leaked images, Derren Kacelek, president of the Police Union, jokes about a new viral strain of COVID killing unhoused people, mocks people of color’s use of social welfare systems, and encourages his subordinates to meet a quota of 100 arrests a month. Despite the extreme nature of this alleged misconduct, the City Manager Dee Williams Ridley’s investigation, conducted quickly, behind closed doors, and without public input, led her to find no conclusive evidence against Kacelek or Interim Chief Louis.

Outrage came to a head at a meeting of the Berkeley City Council the next day—where a vote to promote Interim Chief of Police Jen Louis was postponed. At the same meeting, Alameda County Public Defender, Brendon Woods, voiced his opposition to the interim chief’s appointment and revealed more evidence of systemic misconduct. Juveniles in the state of California have the right to speak with an attorney over the phone as officers verbalize their 5th amendment protection against self-incrimination. According to Woods, BPD officers routinely hung up on attorneys, violating the law and the constitutional rights of our city’s youngest residents. When Woods brought these claims to Louis on multiple occasions, he was ignored. 

The revelations, if authentic, are damning. They suggest that Jen Louis either never knew about the misconduct and abuse which occurred before she became Interim Chief, or that she understood and buried the allegations. Either case is unacceptable. While several City Council members and the Mayor expressed dismay at the violent rhetoric, none spoke to the pattern of predatory policing embedded in BPD. This will come as no surprise to all who are aware of the history and present state of policing in the United States, and Berkeley in particular. 

In 2015 the NAACP and ACLU brought attention to statistics revealing that Black motorists were disproportionately targeted in traffic stops. Last year, police attempted to murder Vincent Bryan, a Black man posing no credible threat. Despite this pattern of racist behavior, the City Council, City Manager and Mayor have done little to address misconduct in the city’s highest funded department. 

A thorough response to this crisis will take time and community input to formulate, but our elected officials must take preliminary measures to treat this information with the gravity it deserves. 

First, the City Council must prevent the promotion of Jen Louis to permanent chief. Louis ignored or was ignorant of the pervasive culture of racism within the BPD and has failed to respond effectively to the serious violations of juvenile’s civil rights within her department. 

Second, Berkeley must empower the Police Accountability Board to conduct a full and independent investigation into predatory policing within BPD. This body was formed by an overwhelming public mandate in November of 2020 and was designed to provide civilian oversight of the city’s most funded department. This is the right time for the institution to be activated. 

Finally, we demand that the Cease Fire Program no longer be supervised by BPD. Cease Fire is a gun violence prevention program targeted at youth. Given the department’s contempt for the constitutional rights of juveniles, they are clearly unqualified to fulfill such an important task.

The recent allegations do not come as a huge surprise to many marginalized people living in Berkeley. They reflect the culture of racism and anti-homelessness that matches the experiences of so many Berkeleyans who have come to Copwatch for support over wrongful arrest, discrimination, harassment, and much worse by the Berkeley police. However, as a community, we are now in the unique position of having leverage—we must use it to stop our local government and police department from playing pretend, as they have been doing for years. We need to know how deep this runs. This is just the start.

Get active. Be aware. Refuse to be abused. 

Berkeley Copwatch is an all-volunteer organization with the goal to reduce police violence through direct observation and holding police accountable for their actions. Formed in 1990, they seek to educate the public about their rights, police conduct in the Berkeley community and issues related to the role of police in our society at large. For more information visit www.berkeleycopwatch.org.