The coronavirus pandemic has shed light on a number of compounding racial inequities that existed far before the outbreak dominated our social feeds and paused life as we knew it. There are higher COVID-19 mortality rates among Black Americans than white citizens, for example, caused in part by discriminatory housing policies and environmental racism; inequities in the labor force, and disparities in access to health care. In the business sector, minority-owned companies are more likely to be denied access to emergency loan programs than those operated by white business owners. And as more cases emerge of officers selectively enforcing CDC guidelines requiring masks in public, lawmakers are turning their attention toward racial bases in policing.
Senator Cory Booker is among a group of legislators that sent a letter to the Department of Justice and FBI urging the agencies to “immediately provide training and guidance on bias, policing, and disproportionate or selective enforcement during the COVID-19 pandemic.” In it, they cite multiple instances of alleged discrimination. The Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation system revoked its policy requiring masks for transit riders after four officers forcibly dragged a Black man from a bus for allegedly not wearing a mask. And in Miami, volunteer Dr. Armen Henderson was getting ready to distribute resources to the homeless and test vulnerable populations for COVID-19 when he was arrested and detained outside his home. Henderson believes he was racially profiled.
While lawmakers are asking agencies for additional guidance on racial bias in light of the pandemic, such training has already been implemented in multiple jurisdictions across the country. In fact, the Miami Police Department, which is investigating the police misconduct complaint filed by Henderson, has been under federal oversight since 2016 following a pattern and practice of excessive use of force. So, it begs the question: Is police bias training actually effective?
Senator Bookers believes it can be when coupled with accountability. During a recent Zoom interview, the senator spoke with MTV News about policies he’s championing to mitigate police misconduct, how holding officers accountable includes considering their mental wellness, and how he still believes in America’s track record of righting itself when its darkest moments bring the country’s flaws to light.
MTV News: What prompted you, Kamala Harris, and the rest of your colleagues to send this letter off to Attorney General Barr and Chris Wray?
Cory Booker: I'm on the Judiciary Committee. I talked to them both very long about implicit racial bias in policing and how we still have widely disproportionate levels of use of force in our country by police officers on African Americans. And this is deadly. You know, the number of police shootings in our country are still unconscionably high. When Obama did his 21st Century Task Force, police leaders were talking about the problem of implicit racial bias. We know that for people who have implicit racial bias training, you actually can reduce those challenges of improper use of force which are such a reality for young Black men.
This administration hasn't done that. They've stopped their accountability for police forces like Obama was doing for cities all across America, including Newark. And now you have all these stories that I've started hearing about young Black men wearing masks as they're being instructed to do, then having that becoming a trigger for even more police action. So this is a problem that exists and could grow over time, and we should be doing nationwide implicit racial bias training, period. But we should especially be doing it now with the challenges that are coming up as a result of mask-wearing.
MTV News: Growing up, what have your personal experiences been like with police?
Booker: I wrote a column when I was a college student right after the Rodney King verdict, when there was rioting going on. The title of it is, "Why Have I Lost Control?" It's about my experiences with police as a young Black man and why I'm not shocked that they found those officers justified in the beating they gave Rodney King. And so how do you even begin to address it?
So now you fast-forward from that young African American man. Now I'm in my thirties and I'm the mayor of a city — Black mayor, Black city — and I knew it was a problem. I spoke to the issue, I thought I was doing the right thing. Then the Obama administration comes in, pulls all the data in a sophisticated way that we don't have the resources to do, and said, “No, you're still disproportionately stopping African Americans.” So even having the right intentions is not enough. So, first, we're not even admitting it is a problem to get to the national intention to do something about it, and then we haven't created the systems of accountability where you or I know the data on police-involved shootings.
MTV News: Does implicit bias training work? Because I'm from the South Side of Chicago. I covered the Laquan McDonald shooting, the 17-year-old who was gunned down by Jason Van Dyke, and in Chicago, it was the first time in five decades that an officer had been incarcerated for something like that. I don't know that I'm 100 percent sold on the idea that we can train people out of implicit bias.
Booker: Training is not enough. It is necessary, but it is not sufficient. And by the way, you and I have implicit biases. We have gender biases. Black police officers have implicit biases. So [it’s incorrect] to think that any one of us can escape our implicit biases. So the right training works, but that is not enough. You have to have systems to measure whether that is still happening in police departments. How many stops did you make in a certain month period? How many of them were African American? How many of them were white? There are ways to use big data to actually see if the training has changed the behavior.
Do you remember that Texas pool party where that little Black girl was sat on by that police officer? I remember it stung me so much, I remember it. Well, when Obama did this with his 21st Century Policing Task Force, what they found were predictive analytics. That's a fancy term that means looking at data you can predict people's behavior. And they found out they could predict situations in which police misconduct would happen. For example, one of the indicators they found is police officers who repeat a certain type of stressful situation are more likely to lash out and have a misconduct claim. And one of those particular types of stressful situations is suicide calls. A data specialist from the Obama administration used that incident, that pool party, [to illustrate that] if an officer has had a suicide call, they are much more likely to have an officer misconduct file charged against them. That officer who sat on that little girl had two suicide calls in the month before. Training is not enough. We have to start having systems of accountability and transparency into what's going on both for the officer's sake and for the community's sake.
MTV News: I love that you made therapy or addressing the mental health of these officers a part of that accountability piece. Because it's about caring for the officers and being empathetic to the work that they have to do but also holding them accountable for their mental wellness as they carry out that work.
Booker: My greatest heroes, like [Martin Luther] King and John Lewis, they never allowed the hatred and the bigotry of those offending them strip them of their ability to still see their dignity. We have to demand unflinchingly police accountability. But we can never stop seeing those officers for who they are, their dignity, their fear. You've got to see the totality of the situation. I will be unrelenting in the protection of African American communities, African American men from police brutality. We have to call it out.
I will also be unrelenting in [calling out] the hypocrisy in our society. I was talking with a friend, seeing these guys protesting opening up their states with their AK-47s on capitol steps and I just said to my friend, "If that was a bunch of black guys on there with their COVID-19 masks holding AK-47s, there would be a whole different type of [response]." I will never flinch from calling out those issues, but we cannot stop seeing the human dignity of everyone involved in this tortured present that we're in 'cause we're never gonna get to a solution unless we get to it together.
MTV News: Part of the reason we have the gun laws we have right now is that the Black Panthers were those Black men with those guns in the ’60s.
Booker: You're right. I hope people take time to read that history about how the Black Panthers openly carrying guns forced a lot of folks to change their gun laws because they didn't want Black folks showing up at city hall meetings with guns.
MTV News: Do you think that, once this pandemic is over, we’ll see a change in the way legislators move forward? Has it personally affected the way you'll govern?
Booker: Look, when women threw themselves out windows at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, dying on the pavement, it shocked the consciousness of this country and we changed federal working laws. When four girls died at a bombing in Birmingham, it shocked the consciousness of this country. We expanded our moral imagination. We expanded our circles of empathy to include African Americans, and it led to the changing of civil rights legislation. The question is, is this is going to be a period in American history when we are forced to confront the disparities in health outcomes in this country? It's not new to me. Black kids have asthma at dramatically higher rates. A Black kid with asthma is ten times more likely to die of asthma complications than a white kid. We have a respiratory disease coming in, of course it's going to ravish those communities.
I'm sitting in Newark. Why are the asthma rates here three, four times higher than suburban towns? Well, we have toxic waste sites, Superfund sites. We have the county incinerator here, all of these environmental toxins that are disproportionately in communities of color. So America's now seeing this laid naked before their eyes as injustice. My prayer for us — and I want to try to not just hope it happens but try to make it happen — is that we expand our empathy, moral imagination, and it translates into laws and policies that address this. That's a question mark; we're at a crossroads. We’ve got to be a country on the constant march to make real the promise of America for everybody. So this is a crossroads in that all of us have to be activists in that cause. We cannot just hope it happens.