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After policing talks fell apart, Sen. Cory Booker is looking for other ways to change justice system

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 10/17/2021 Savannah Behrmann, USA TODAY
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NEWARK, N.J. – When a jury convicted Derek Chauvin of murdering George Floyd in Minneapolis, the decision carried a sense of optimism – and relief – that justice had been served. 

The enthusiasm after the April verdict spilled into the halls of Congress, where three prominent Black lawmakers were negotiating a way to hold officers more accountable for violent encounters with civilians, an effort spurred by Floyd's death. With Chauvin heading to prison, the talks got a jolt of energy. 

“I think we're in a position now to move it forward," said the group's Republican, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the day after Chauvin's conviction. "I'm very optimistic that we’ll get it on President Biden’s desk," said Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif. Passing the bill by the anniversary of Floyd's death – May 25 – seemed within reach. 

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But six months later, the talks have fallen apart and the United States is no closer to having federal policing legislation, something Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., told USA TODAY was "very disappointing" during a stroll last week in his neighborhood in Newark, where he was mayor before being elected to the Senate. 

Booker, 52, didn't pinpoint a specific disagreement that ultimately stalled and ended the talks. But he said a failure to come to terms over a variety of issues – protections for police from civil lawsuits and standards that departments should meet to get grant money – were the focus of conflicts that went unresolved. 

"Civil rights legislation didn't pass in an instant. It took them years and years of struggle to get federal legislation to change," he said. "These things don't happen in an instant. They happen because ... our history is always a result of continuous unyielding struggle."

Despite the setback, Booker said, his personal experience with discrimination and confrontations with police, plus the needs he sees in Newark  – a city that is majority Black – are pushing him to find new ways to improve the criminal justice system. He speaks regularly with the White House, though he acknowledges that the next steps are unclear.

Where does policing bill go from here, and when? Booker couldn't say.

"I'm not sure what's the best approach to get something done."

More: Policing talks collapse in Congress, marking end of negotiations spurred by George Floyd's death

Protesters march in downtown Minneapolis June 25 after former police officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced to more than 22 years in prison for the murder of George Floyd. © Julio Cortez, AP Protesters march in downtown Minneapolis June 25 after former police officer Derek Chauvin was sentenced to more than 22 years in prison for the murder of George Floyd.

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Talks end with differences over policy

The talks on Capitol Hill stalled throughout the summer, and the two sides called it quits in September. In the end, the two sides blamed each other.

Booker, according to a Senate aide familiar with the talks, pulled out after Scott rejected his final offer. Bass said that he and Booker made "significant compromises" throughout the negotiations but that Republicans were "unwilling" to reach a deal.

Scott countered that Democratic intransigence had doomed the negotiations. "Democrats once again squandered a crucial opportunity" to enact change, he said.

Democrats introduced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act in 2020 after Floyd's death sparked mass protests across the U.S. It sought to increase police accountability and would have created a national registry to track officers with checkered records to prevent those with a history of malfeasance from moving from one department to another. It also would have prohibited profiling based on race and religion, required training on profiling, and banned chokeholds, carotid holds and no-knock warrants.

It passed the Democratic-led House but never was taken up in the Senate. Democrats slimmed down their proposals during the talks, scrapping a call to end qualified immunity – which shields police officers from civil liability unless they violate “clearly established” law. 

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., leave the office of Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., after a meeting about police reform legislation on Capitol Hill in May. © Drew Angerer, Getty Images Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., leave the office of Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., after a meeting about police reform legislation on Capitol Hill in May.

A document outlining Democrats' minimum requirements offered to Scott near the end of the negotiations included a ban on the use of no-knock warrants and provisions aimed at curtailing officers' use of chokeholds, as well as elements of a 2020 executive order by former President Donald Trump, which prioritized federal grants to police departments that sought out credentials on use-of-force standards.

The order also called for the creation of a national database to allow departments to track potential hires with records of abuse and for mental health professionals to respond alongside officers to calls dealing with homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness. 

"We started with a big bill, then we started narrowing it down, throwing things overboard to try to get some progress. But even by the end of it, we weren't making progress," Booker said.

Republicans repeatedly said the federal legislation needed to be narrow, emphasizing that they believed it was up to local governments to regulate their police departments. 

Shortly after Floyd's death, Scott introduced his Justice Act, which called for beefed-up police training that emphasizes de-escalation, increased sharing of disciplinary records between agencies on officers who move from one department to another, grants for agencies to equip officers with body cameras, and incentives to end chokeholds.

Scott wrote an op-ed for USA TODAY weeks after Floyd's death, saying he found himself "choking on my own fears" when "faced with the realities of an encounter with law enforcement."

When talks ended, Scott said, he was disappointed and insisted Democrats kept pushing for "defunding the police" policies. Booker disagreed that any of the dispute was about defunding the police.

During 2020, the FBI reported a nearly 30% increase in murders, the largest single-year jump since the bureau began recording crime statistics six decades ago. Police violence inspired a call from Black Lives Matters activists and protesters to "defund the police," or redistribute police department budgets toward community social programs.

An Ipsos/USA TODAY poll released in March found just 18% of respondents supported "defund the police," while 58% opposed it. 

President Joe Biden's goal of getting the bill done by the anniversary of Floyd's death was never achieved. Booker said he has not spoken to Floyd's family since the negotiations ended.

More: Trump signs order addressing police misconduct, but some experts say it's not enough

Booker's push for criminal justice change rooted in Newark

When Booker's family moved to Harrington Park, New Jersey – a predominantly white suburban neighborhood –  when he was an infant, no real estate agent would sell to a Black family. Later, when Booker attended Stanford, police surrounded his car and wrongly accused him of stealing it, he said. 

He speaks of both experiences often, saying they were part of what inspired him to run for office. After serving as a City Council member and mayor, he became one of only 11 Black senators in history.

"I don't want another generation of kids growing up with the experiences like I've had, and most every other Black men I know are so ever-present in our country." Booker told USA TODAY, standing outside where "Brick Towers," a housing project in Newark he lived in for years, used to stand. Booker lived at the property when he was mayor until it was demolished in 2008.

When Booker was first running for City Council, he knocked on the doors of voters and said half the people he met "had horrible stories of the criminal justice system and how it rained down on their lives."

Now Booker lives in a tan-colored townhouse in the same neighborhood. Being there reminds him problems remain, he explained. On a warm fall day, several people approached Booker on the street to talk about criminal justice reform, including a law he helped spearhead: the First Step Act, which places federal prisoners closer to home, allows more home confinement for lower-level offenders, and expands prison employment programs. It was signed by Trump in 2018.

Daniel Harp, 56, jumped from a car to tell Booker more needs to be done for those who have served time in prison.

More: Trump embraces bipartisan criminal justice reform legislation

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"When you see the sheer gravity of how unfair and unjust our criminal justice system is, that's what drives me," Booker said. "We should all be striving to have a nation that where somebody sees a police officer, the first thing you don't feel is fear." 

One issue important to Booker is achieving more transparency of police and police department data, a focus that stems from his time as mayor of Newark. 

Policies enacted by Booker and the city had crime falling significantly, but anger toward the police department and City Council arose over an increase in instances of abuse and misbehavior by police officers.

In 2010, the ACLU stepped in and asked the Justice Department to investigate more than 400 cases of misconduct between 2008 and mid-2010. An investigation was announced in 2011. 

"Clearly, when the DOJ came in, we were not doing – the Black mayor, (majority) Black City Council, majority Black city – we weren't doing it right," Booker said. "And it wasn't until the DOJ, and we actually started working with the ACLU, who got us to scrape all the data, that we began to see we can make a lot of improvement."

One of the problems the Justice Department found in its initial investigation was that the out-of-date data collection in the city needed to be vastly improved to ensure the Newark Police Department was engaging in bias-free policing, as "the Black community in Newark bears the brunt of NPD’s unconstitutional stop practices."

 "I know what it takes to force departments to change. And one of the things, for example, is having data transparency," Booker said.

When pressed on whether legislation – he has introduced some in the past – on data transparency would be a feasible next step, he said, "I sincerely don't know."

What are Booker's next plans

Now that talks on police reform have stalled on Capitol Hill, much attention has shifted to Biden and what he may do through executive orders.

Booker says he talks regularly with the Biden administration about next steps. He said that they were in a "strategy phase now" and that he couldn't get "too deep" into what future action may look like.

Ross Baker, a professor of American Politics at Rutgers University who also spent years on Capitol Hill as an aide, told USA TODAY that far-reaching executive orders that criminal justice and police reform advocates want would draw "constitutional objections." 

"There's long been an understanding that the police power is vested in the states," Baker noted, pointing to one of the underlying arguments Republicans had against federal legislation. "The only thing (the White House) could really do is have the Justice Department get a series of consent decrees."

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For years, the Justice Department had relied on consent decrees to bring change to police departments accused of abuse, a practice that was all but abandoned during the Trump administration.

These court-enforced agreements with state and local governments allow judges to ensure that promised changes are underway within those police departments.

Booker says he feels pressure to get something done on policing, and "there's such a demand for doing something significant."

Changes to the nation's drug laws could transform the criminal justice system, Booker said, specifically "restorative justice" and other aspects that trickle down to preventing arrests in the first place.

Booker has introduced the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, which would end the federal prohibition of marijuana. The bill also would "take the billions of dollars of tax money and have it fuel investment into communities that have been disproportionately targeted by the war on drugs," Booker said.

Cory Booker, Chuck Schumer, Ron Wyden are posing for a picture: Sen. Schumer calls legalization of marijuana bill 'monumental' © Provided by USA TODAY Sen. Schumer calls legalization of marijuana bill 'monumental'

More: Nation's failed weed war turned many into prisoners and others into moguls

One of those communities is Newark, Booker said. When he was mayor, he created initiatives to help inmates reenter society and work toward expunging their records.

"Expunging records would liberate the economic potential of millions of Americans, particularly in communities like the one we're walking through," he said.

Booker noted that data shows Black Americans are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, "but there's no different in usage."

"So what happens in our community, you just see this concentration of people with criminal convictions in a way that's not just and fair," Booker said.

About 84% of the more than 2,000 marijuana offenders who were federally sentenced in 2018 were people of color, according to the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Only 11% were white, even though they make up more than 60% of the U.S. population.  

More: 7 officers were fired after Black man died in a Texas jail. His family says he was having a mental health crisis.

Booker said more immediate changes to the criminal justice system and policing may have to start on a local level and state level, citing "really significant laws" in some states. 

"So, change has been made on a city level, state level. Counties have changed laws," Booker said. "The federal government? Nothing yet."

Contributing: Kevin Johnson, Robert Deutsch, Grace Huack, Chelsey Cox

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: After policing talks fell apart, Sen. Cory Booker is looking for other ways to change justice system

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