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From ‘tough on crime’ to tough on cops: Cory Booker recasts his record

In 2006, Cory Booker gestures to the crowd after delivering a speech following his swearing in as Newark mayor. (Emile Wamsteker/Bloomberg News)

NEWARK — Cory Booker was elected mayor in 2006 on a vow to transform this struggling city. He made tackling crime a top priority, adopted aggressive policing tactics and resisted calls for a federal probe into complaints of police brutality and misconduct.

When former vice president Joe Biden highlighted that record during last month’s presidential debate and accused Booker of doing too little to fix Newark’s long-troubled police department, Booker flippantly dismissed the criticism: “ ‘You’re dipping into the Kool-Aid, and you don’t even know the flavor.’ ”

But that sharp response ducked the underlying truth that Booker initially waged war against the American Civil Liberties Union and other community activists over their calls for federal oversight of Newark police. Pressed on that disconnect, Booker acknowledged he had been wrong. “We thought we could handle the problems on our own,” he said in an interview. “Clearly, we needed help.”

Booker is the latest Democratic presidential contender to confront his evolving stance on policing and justice, as the old political imperative to be “tough on crime” has given way to a broad consensus that the system is overly punitive, unfair to minorities and in desperate need of reform.

Compelled to address spiking rates of urban violence in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s or be branded “soft on crime,” many Democrats joined Republicans in courting the support of police unions, waging a war on drugs and promising to lock up as many criminals for as long as possible.

Today, however, violent crime is at historic lows, and a wave of research has revealed the devastating impact of these policies on minority communities — leaving many Democrats scrambling to recast themselves as reformers.

“There is nobody who was a public figure over the last 25 years who does not have a bunch of embarrassing remarks” and questionable policy stances on criminal justice, said Phillip Atiba Goff, president of the Center for Policing Equity who has consulted with several Democratic contenders. “For the last quarter-century, you could get away with not really knowing anything about policing. Not anymore.”

Biden is perhaps the most prominent example. As a senator from Delaware, he wrote the 1994 crime bill, which has since come under attack for introducing harsh penalties for crack cocaine, expanding the use of mandatory minimum sentences and adding to the slate of crimes punishable by death.

Last month, Biden rolled out a plan to undo all those policies and came out in favor of abolishing the death penalty. “We have now a systemic problem and too many African Americans in jail,” Biden said during an appearance at the NAACP convention in Detroit. “I think we should shift the whole focus from what we’re doing in terms of incarceration to rehabilitation.”

Other candidates are also struggling to explain their records to voters. As local prosecutors, Sens. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) conducted aggressive campaigns against low-level offenders, such as graffiti artists and parents of truant children — practices now blamed for unnecessarily funneling thousands of people into prison.

Both women argue their experience makes them best-equipped to shepherd systemic reforms. In the July 31 debate, Harris sought to focus on her more reform-minded tenure as California attorney general, which she said “became a national model for the work that needs to be done.”

Even Booker, who has built a career around issues of racial equity, has sought to paper over his early battles with community activists.

“I don’t know if he’s taking liberties or just shortening what actually happened because it takes time to explain,” said Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU New Jersey. Whatever the case, Sinha called it “incredible” that Booker and other Democrats “are vying to be the most progressive or the biggest reformer on a national debate stage.”

“Just a few years ago,” he said, “they were all trying to be the toughest on crime.”

Booker’s evolution is particularly striking. Raised in suburban New Jersey, he moved to Newark after law school and won a seat on the city council in an upset victory in 1998. Eight years later, he ascended to the mayor’s office on a promise to revitalize the troubled city.

Though the crime rate had dipped from its peak in the 1990s, Newark still ranked among the most dangerous cities in the nation — a reputation that scared off potential residents and businesses.

“Because [Booker] was presenting himself as a technocrat, he had to deliver,” and that meant moving “the needle on economic development and crime,” said Emory University professor Andra Gillespie, author of “The New Black Politician: Cory Booker, Newark, and Post-Racial America.”

“If the city has a reputation of being unsafe, then nobody is going to want to live and work there,” Gillespie said. “And Newark had the reputation of being a rough city.”

Booker quickly hired a new police director: Garry McCarthy, a straight-talking Bronx native who had been a key architect of the “broken windows” style of policing then credited with reducing violence in New York City (a claim criminologists debate to this day). The broken-windows theory holds that by punishing minor infractions such as public drunkenness and urination, police can deter more serious crimes.

McCarthy also promised to improve police accountability measures, and Booker said he instructed his new police director to “change the culture” of a department “with decades-long challenges.”

“We came in with this belief that, ‘Let’s get someone not from Newark, an independent voice, and police conduct is one of the first things to have them tackle,’ ” Booker said.

McCarthy streamlined officer discipline and moved more officers onto the night shift, when most of the city’s violence occurred. But he also continued a “stop and frisk” program that called for officers to pat down pedestrians if they found “reasonable suspicion” of a crime, with the aim of getting guns and other weapons off the street.

“We brought the New York playbook to Newark,” said McCarthy, who went on to serve as Chicago police superintendent, where he was fired amid controversy over the fatal police shooting of a black teenager, Laquan McDonald, in 2014.

Booker was an eager cheerleader for the crackdown, often riding along in squad cars and appearing with police at crime scenes. In one storied incident, Booker personally chased a knife-wielding man, who was ultimately tackled by one of the mayor’s security guards. “Not in my city!” Booker declared as the guards held the man on the pavement, according to his 2016 memoir.

The department also adopted a “zero tolerance” policy for quality-of-life crimes, but Booker said it was less punitive than similar tactics used in cities like New York. For example, Newark police were told to issue tickets in such cases, not make arrests.

“This is not like Eric Garner, trying to arrest someone for selling loosies,” Booker said, using slang for individual cigarettes. “We were getting inundated with community calls about . . . open-air drinking and public urination.”

Nonetheless, complaints of civil rights violations multiplied, even as the new tactics and exuberant theatrics brought a modest drop in crime. Local activists say Booker seemed more interested in befriending the police than holding them accountable.

“He did not want to be associated with groups that were quote-unquote against the police,” said Larry Hamm, founder of the People’s Organization for Progress. “Now, we weren’t against the police. We were against police brutality, and that’s no small nuance.”

Residents of Newark had complained for decades of police misconduct, and they had demanded the creation of a citizen oversight board at least since the 1967 riots. When Booker was elected, activists were hopeful that he would usher in a new era of police accountability. Five years later, they lost patience.

“It went from tremendous hope and optimism and goodwill to patience, to frustration, to ‘We’re not getting anywhere, and there are people’s lives at risk, and we can’t wait any longer,’ ” said Deborah Jacobs, executive director of the ACLU’s New Jersey chapter at the time.

The ACLU hired an outside lawyer to conduct a nine-month investigation of Newark police, warning Booker that they intended to send the findings to the U.S. Justice Department.

The completed report tallied more than 400 allegations of misconduct by Newark officers and documented millions of dollars in settlements that the city had paid out in recent years. After 10 days, having heard no response from Booker, they mailed the report to Washington in September 2010.

Booker was incensed and immediately set out to discredit the report. His spokesperson called it “patently misleading.”

“If Deborah Jacobs and her team really want to help, this is probably one of the worst ways,” Booker declared in an interview with WNYC radio. “We are making progress, and we don’t need people who are going to frustrate, undermine and mischaracterize our agency.”

By the time Justice Department officials showed up eight months later, Booker’s tune had changed — a shift he attributes to conversations with his chief of staff, Modia “Mo” Butler, and then-U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman.

In his memoir, Booker writes that Butler reminded him that he had written passionately about how it felt to be racially profiled during a traffic stop. Now he was telling black residents their concerns about unjust policing were overblown.

“If I stepped out of my crime-fighting bubble and was once again just another young black guy, I would not only embrace a comprehensive investigation, I’d be demanding it,” Booker recalls Butler telling him. “He told me that if I had so quickly forgotten my own life experiences, I had my head up my large black posterior region.”

Booker said Fishman told him that a federal investigation was a rare opportunity to receive millions of dollars in free consulting that could produce concrete ideas for reform.

“I was ticked off when they filed the complaint,” Booker said. “And then Paul Fishman sat down with me and said, ‘Cory, this is crazy.’ ”

On the day the probe was announced, the Newark Star-Ledger reported that it “looked more like a lighthearted ribbon-cutting ceremony than an announcement … that could flip Newark’s police department upside down.” Calling the investigation a “win-win” for the city, Booker said he was “relieved” and “enthusiastic” and expressed hope that Justice Department investigators would “dispel” allegations against his police.

“He appeared to be trying to frame our investigation as not that big of a deal — when it was pretty clearly a big deal,” said Christy Lopez, the senior Justice Department civil rights official who led the probe.

It soon became clear that investigators would sustain serious allegations against the department. Long before the probe was complete, Booker began rolling out reform measures. He issued a public reminder that citizens have the right to record officers, expanded reentry programs for released prisoners and, in his final State of the City address, finally endorsed the formation of a civilian police review board.

“He seemed genuinely concerned both about bringing down crime in Newark’s neighborhoods and about not violating people’s rights and was having a difficult time navigating that path,” Lopez recalled. “He was also very concerned about his reputation.”

The findings, released in 2014, were damning: 75 percent of pedestrian stops by Newark police did not meet legal criteria, investigators found. Black residents were 2.5 times as likely to be stopped as white residents.

By then, however, Booker was no longer mayor. He had ascended to the U.S. Senate, where he quickly made his mark condemning racial disparities in law enforcement.

“The system is woefully biased against minorities in our country,” Booker testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in December 2014, as protests raged around the nation over the police killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Garner in New York.

“When you hear about police violence, trust me,” Booker testified. “I was a mayor of a great American city.”