Biden’s shot at Booker over Newark cops tells only half the story | Moran

Posted Aug 4, 2019

As Cory Booker and Joe Biden exchanged blows in last week’s TV debate over police and crime in Newark, I was struck by how badly each man distorted the history, as anyone who lived through it can testify.

So, let’s take a minute to sift fact from fiction on this, as it is sure to come up again, especially after Booker’s rock-star performance is causing Americans to take a more careful look at his candidacy.

Biden was right about one thing: When Booker was mayor of Newark, starting in 2006, the police on his watch had an ugly habit of harassing African-Americans with illegal searches based on race, roughing them up for no good reason, and dismissing their flood of complaints as unfounded. In one two-year stretch, internal affairs received 261 complaints about police misconduct and found just one substantiated.

The facts are spelled out in harrowing detail in a 2014 Justice Department investigation, one that examined police behavior during Booker’s first five years on the job and led to federal oversight that is still in place today.

Booker resisted federal intervention until he lost the fight, and even attacked the ACLU after it documented 418 cases of police misbehavior,work that prompted the federal investigation.

“It’s casting unnecessary aspersion on the police department through the distortion of facts,” Booker said, charging that the ACLU was engaging in “negative stereotypes” about his majority-black city.

Deborah Jacobs, then executive director of the ACLU-NJ, was exasperated. “We had tried playing nice, tried being patient, tried everything,” she recalls. “We weren’t getting any traction, and this is with someone who spoke about caring.”

But that’s not the whole story, not by a long shot. Because Booker adapted, and then some. He embraced the federal investigation after only a few weeks, cooperated fully, and launched his own reform campaign even before the Justice Department finished its investigation in 2014.

He called for the establishment of a civilian review board, which is now in place under his successor, Ras Baraka. He launched re-entry initiatives to help released prisoners get back on their feet, years before that became mainstream. He changed the policy on stop-and-frisks, making public reports each month that listed each police stop, broken down by race, along with the number of citizen complaints filed against each officer and the results of any internal investigations.

“The totality really makes this the most comprehensive policy of its kind, as far as we know, in the nation,” said Udi Ofer, a successor to Jacobs at the ACLU.

And that’s where Biden was dead wrong. Because after delivering a legitimate blow over Booker’s history, he went overboard and falsely charged that Booker never corrected course.

“The Justice Department came after you for saying you were engaged in behavior that was inappropriate, and then in fact nothing happened,” Biden said. “The entire time you were mayor.”

So, where does this leave us? My guess is it won’t hurt Booker much, and it probably shouldn’t. He took office in 2006, when people in Newark wanted one thing from him above all else – stop the bloodshed.

He came in talking tough, and that’s what people wanted to hear. Even in 2012, the final year of the Justice Department investigation, Booker had a favorability rating of 70 percent in Newark.

When he took office, he hired more cops, and recruited a senior officer from Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration to copy New York’s strategy of using hard data to deploy police strategically, and to make frequent stops over minor infractions in hopes of finding guns. During his first term, it seemed to work as Newark saw sharp drops in murders and shootings. Most of those gains were lost after cuts in state aid forced police layoffs, but Booker had secured his reputation as tough on crime.

“In 2019, everybody is a progressive, but they weren’t then,” says Larry Hamm, who was banging alarms about police brutality during this period with weekly protests organized by a group he founded, the People’s Organization for Progress. “It wasn’t just Booker. You would be hard-pressed to find an elected official who would stand up and say they were opposed to police brutality. That was not the favor of the month.”

People in Newark, he said, were understandably more focused on burglaries and shootings. “I’m not unsympathetic to that,” Hamm says. “My apartment was broken into four times in one year.”

But Booker, he said, was no reformer in his early years. “There was not a night I would drive down streets like Springfield Avenue and not see young men lined up against a wall being patted down,” he says. “That might have been tough on crime, but it also led to violations of peoples’ rights. That’s the approach Booker was pushing at the time.”

Rogue policing is not an effective answer, granted. Aside from abusing innocent people, it didn’t work. When Booker took office in 2006, Newark suffered 105 murders, making it one of the nation’s most dangerous cities. Booker chopped that to 67 within a few years, but the progress was short-lived. In 2013, the year he left city hall, 112 people were murdered.

But Booker’s crackdown was part of a national trend, and he did change course. To judge him without considering that, as Biden did, is unfair.

Booker, of course, committed the same sin when he blamed Biden for the 1994 crime bill that “created” the crisis of mass incarceration. “There are people right now in prison for life, for drug offenses because you stood up and used that tough on crime phony rhetoric that got a lot of people elected but destroyed communities like mine,” Booker charged.

If you were an adult in 1994, you no doubt remember the carnage. It was a scary time. Biden was a sponsor of that crime bill, but it had wide support, even from the majority of the Congressional Black Caucus. To put this at Biden’s feet ignores history even more egregiously than Biden did when discussing Newark.

If we are digging for skeletons on criminal justice, remember to throw Sen. Kamala Harris into the mix. Like Booker, she was a hard-liner once, when she served as prosecutor for San Francisco and attorney general for California.

Her worst offense, to me at least, was her refusal to allow DNA testing in the murder case against Kevin Collins, a 61-year-old black man who sits today on death row at San Quentin prison. Five federal judges warned in 2009 that California “might be about to execute an innocent man” and that Collins was denied a fair hearing on convincing evidence that he was framed by police. Still, Harris fought the DNA testing. Read the searing account of this from Nicholas Kristoff at the New York Times and it is difficult to forgive her.

Booker was reckless and defensive in his early years as mayor, granted. But he faced a genuine crisis in good faith, he corrected course, and as a senator, he’s more than made up for those early stumbles. He co-sponsored a law that reduces sentences for drug offenders and boosts prison rehabilitation efforts, one of the only major bipartisan bills to pass during the Trump era. He favors full legalization of marijuana. And he recently sponsored a sensible and compassionate bill to give seniors serving long prison terms a chance to win release.

So, if Biden thinks he can take down Booker on this issue, he is screaming into the wind. It won’t stick, and it shouldn’t.

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