Berkeley’s top cop faced internal accusations of misconduct as she rose through ranks
A pioneering cop, Jennifer Louis is poised to record several historic firsts at the Berkeley Police Department as a gay Asian woman selected to serve as chief. But as she awaits a City Council confirmation vote, a 2017 investigation into sexual harassment allegations has come to light.
An outside law firm hired by the city to investigate upheld allegations that she made harassing comments to one woman, but not claims made by two other women, according to city investigative and disposition records reviewed by The Times. Louis appealed to Berkeley City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley and in 2018 was given a written reprimand, stating that some comments she made were “unprofessional,” which has since been removed from her record.
Louis joined the Berkeley police in 1999 and rose steadily through the ranks — from patrol to working as a supervisor in the Special Victims Unit, to heading the department’s Strategic Response Team. She was made one of the department’s four captains in 2016 and spearheaded the police response to the pandemic.
When her predecessor retired in 2021, she was appointed to lead the department as the search for a permanent chief began. Louis was one of three candidates interviewed to assume the role, part of a nationwide search that was supposed to take six months but ended up taking 20. She was tapped for the top job in October, but the City Council vote to confirm her as chief was put on hold due to a scandal involving the police union head sending racist text messages.
The council members now set to vote on Louis’ confirmation said they were never made aware of the 2017 allegations against Louis, the ensuing investigation or Louis’ appeal, two city officials told The Times.
“The city manager should have informed [the council] so they have all relevant information for [the] vote,” one of the officials said.
Ten current and former members of the Berkeley Police Department interviewed by The Times were split on their views of Louis, with four describing her as having made advances toward younger women in the department, while others say she is a strong leader who is the focus of baseless allegations.
Louis “is one of the smartest, most capable, strong women in our department,” said one Berkeley police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly about the interim chief. “She’s a lesbian and she’s not afraid to stand in that space and she doesn’t take s— from anybody, and people don’t like it.”
Despite the written reprimand, Louis denied all allegations against her, calling them “false.”
“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,” Louis said in a statement to The Times. “I have never committed sexual harassment. Nor have I ever discriminated or retaliated against any member of the department or the community. ... I care deeply for the safety and wellbeing of every member of the police department and the community we serve.”
The 2017 investigation arose after Heather Haney, an officer with the Berkeley Police Department, filed a complaint alleging that Louis had made inappropriate comments to her at a SWAT team party.
An attorney from the Los Angeles law firm Burke, Williams & Sorensen interviewed numerous people in connection with the investigation, according to witnesses who spoke with The Times. They included two other women who alleged inappropriate conduct by Louis. Though they have since left the department, those women spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal.
Haney’s complaint was sustained on Oct. 10, 2017, meaning the investigator found that Louis had violated the city’s harassment prevention policy with her comments to Haney. Then-Police Chief Andrew Greenwood moved to suspend Louis from the department for five days. But Louis appealed the findings — and presented her own case — to City Manager Williams-Ridley, who reduced the punishment on May 10, 2018, to a “written reprimand” for “unprofessional conduct” that violated a police regulation requiring “respect among employees,” according to city records reviewed by The Times.
Although Haney was informed of the sustained finding, she and Louis’ other accusers were not aware of the appeal or the discipline that was ultimately meted out until they were informed by The Times. They said they saw it as a slap on the wrist. With the vote on Louis’ appointment as chief pending, some members of the department who spoke with The Times said the information was relevant to Louis’ ability to lead the department effectively.
An alleged affair
One former Berkeley Police officer told The Times that she was wooed by Louis after she joined the department in 2008. The higher-ranking Louis would flirt with her, she said, and touch her waist during work. She alleged that they began a secretive sexual fling — secretive, she said, because of Louis’ role as a supervisor.
It is not against Berkeley Police Department policy to date within the department or for officers of different ranks to date. But supervisors are barred from dating people they are supervising, according to a high-ranking police official. The woman claimed that, while they were seeing each other, Louis sometimes acted as her supervisor at work.
The woman said Louis was afraid that if they were to have a relationship and it became public, it would harm Louis’ reputation, according to the woman’s interview for the 2017 investigation.
She described to the investigator an incident during their alleged relationship in a locker room at police headquarters. “She kind of cornered me at my locker ... when I barely had any clothes on,” the woman said in the interview. “I remember feeling really intimidated that if anyone walked in ... my locker’s right in the view of whoever would open the door.”
The woman said in the interview that she felt “vulnerable” and feared discovery.
The woman also recounted to the investigator an incident she said occurred later, when she was dating someone. Louis confronted her privately at a party. “You’re trying to replace me?” she recalled her saying in the interview with investigators. “They’ll never be as good as me.”
Yet in the interview for the 2017 investigation, the officer denied having had a romantic relationship with Louis, and she told The Times she never filed a complaint about her. She said in the 2017 interview that she was friends with Louis, and that when Louis asked her out, she declined, according to the transcript of the interview.
Louis’ attorney, Alison Berry Wilkinson, maintains there was no romantic relationship, and investigators found the woman’s allegations to be unsubstantiated.
Another former Berkeley police officer said that in 2013 she met then-Sgt. Louis as a rookie cop. Louis was in charge of the rookie officers at the time, she said. Louis showed her preferential treatment, she claimed, including offering her overtime shifts she didn’t offer to others. When rumors spread that the two were dating, she spoke to Louis, who asked her, “How would you feel about us dating?” the woman told The Times.
The officer said she declined and told Louis she was not interested in dating people within the department, she told The Times. But, months later, she began to date a fellow officer.
When Louis found out about the relationship, she began to do things that were “detrimental” to the couple, the woman told The Times. Louis denied the allegations, and they were not substantiated by investigators.
Of the three women making allegations, Haney was the only one to file a complaint.
Haney said she attended a SWAT team barbecue in May 2017, where she said then-Capt. Louis, her superior on the team, made inappropriate comments.
At one point in the party, Haney said Louis directed her child, whom she’d brought to the party, to throw a water balloon at Haney because “she’s wearing a white tank top,” according to the interview transcript from the investigation.
Haney also said that, in a group conversation, Louis spoke about breastfeeding and said, when the baby doesn’t latch on, “she likes to f— around with the nipple, and then she turned to me, ‘You know what that’s like.’” She said: “I don’t have any children. The way I perceived it was because I’m gay or dating a girl ... that’s why she made that comment.”
The investigating law firm sustained Haney’s complaint regarding the comments made at the party.
When Louis made her later appeal to the city manager, according to Wilkinson, witnesses painted a different picture. “There was nothing sexual” about the T-shirt reference, one witness told The Times.
City Manager Williams-Ridley concluded there was “unprofessional conduct” regarding Louis’ comments about Haney’s white shirt and “exonerated” her on the alleged comments about breastfeeding.
The city declined to comment on the sexual harassment investigation, saying that state law prohibits it from commenting on police personnel matters. The city also denied a public records request for details on the investigation, citing the “prohibition on disclosure of peace officer personnel records.”
The 2018 letter from the city manager to Louis following her appeal informed her that she could make a request to have the written reprimand removed from her personnel file in 2020. Louis made the request in June 2020, and the reprimand was removed from her file that August.
“The City of Berkeley is committed to providing a work environment free from harassment that’s guided by an extensive harassment policy, and takes allegations of harassment very seriously. All complaints are thoroughly investigated to determine the facts, and based on those facts, appropriate action is taken,” said city spokesman Matthai Chakko.
‘We were shocked’
But the women who spoke out against Louis expressed their frustration. Given the allegations, they questioned Louis’ fitness for chief: “You don’t want somebody like that ... in power.”
The spotlight on the earlier investigation does not come at a good time for Louis, whose nomination to be permanent chief was put on pause in November following the leak of texts that allegedly show the president of the police officers union making racially charged remarks and calling for arrest quotas.
Louis denied knowledge of the texts, but it was enough for the City Council to indefinitely delay the vote to confirm her as chief.
“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. None of the alleged incidents occurred underneath my supervision,” Louis said in a statement about the text scandal.
Two sources within the department who support Louis said they believed the leak of texts and sexual harassment allegations coming out now might be intended to sink Louis’ chances at being voted in as chief.
The women who accused Louis, however, say they are hoping to bring an investigation to light that, years ago, was quietly wrapped up.
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