Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg has been facing mounting online criticism over his mayoral record on stop-and-frisk, a tactic used by the New York Police Department in what critics — and eventually, a federal judge — said was a biased manner. This week, a 5-year-old recording emerged of Bloomberg obliquely defending the program. In response, the Bloomberg campaign released a misleading statement on Tuesday claiming that he simply inherited the policy and later reduced the practice.
“I inherited the police practice of stop-and-frisk, and as part of our effort to stop gun violence it was overused,” he said in a statement posted on his presidential campaign website. “By the time I left office,” the statement continued, “I cut it back by 95%, but I should’ve done it faster and sooner. I regret that and I have apologized — and I have taken responsibility for taking too long to understand the impact it had on Black and Latino communities.”
The statement drew immediate backlash over its twisting of history. In 2001, New York City maintained an aggressive program of stopping and searching people throughout the city, with an overwhelming focus on young African American and Latino men. But, under the Bloomberg administration, the program vastly expanded, from around 97,296 stops in 2002 to a height of 685,724 in 2011 — a more than sevenfold increase during the former mayor’s tenure.
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Far from changing course over the mayor’s focus on “racial equity,” as he has since claimed, the practice was clawed back by several lawsuits, which charged that the law enforcement program violated the basic constitutional rights of residents. U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, in a scathing decision, noted that over the course of 2.3 million frisks, weapons were found only 1.5 percent of the time. The decision pointed out that over half of the stops included African Americans and about third Latino, with less than 10 percent targeting white people.
The Bloomberg administration fought alongside New York’s notoriously aggressive police union to continue the program, arguing that the stop-and-frisk effort was focused on suspects with “furtive movements,” in “high-crime areas” and those with a “suspicious bulge.” But the judge knocked down those assertions, noting that such claims are vague and subjective.
In the comments that circulated online this week, Bloomberg can be heard speaking at an Aspen Institute conference in 2015 defending the program’s racial slant as justifiable given the proportion of crime in African American and Latino communities. “You can just take the description, Xerox it, and pass it out to all the cops,” said the billionaire former mayor. “They are male, minorities, 16 to 25. That’s true in New York; that’s true in virtually every city.”
While data does reflect that violent crime tends to cluster in particular neighborhoods and among young men, the Bloomberg administration’s stop-and-frisk program went well beyond targeting based solely on objective evidence. Expert testimony in federal court found that the New York Police Department carried out far more stop-and-frisks on African American and Latino residents even when controlling for precinct-level crime statistics and socioeconomic characteristics. In other words, the evidence showed that minorities were targeted for stops based on a lesser degree of suspicion than white people.
In 2019, the New York Police Department reported 11,008 stops, a small fraction of the amount of stops during the Bloomberg era.
The charge of racial bias was also backed up by multiple investigations and media scandals. In one case, a low-level police officer recorded his superior instructing him on how to target residents for stop-and-frisk in a particular neighborhood. “I have no problem telling you this: male blacks, 14 to 20, 21,” the officer said in the recording. In another case, a young Harlem teenager surreptitiously recorded officers stopping and frisking him. Asked why they had targeted him, the officer replied, “For being a fucking mutt.”
What’s more, the true extent of the program may never be known. Every time a New York police officer engages in stop-and-frisk, they are expected to fill out a form for the action to be recorded by the city. Court monitors have noted that there is evidence that many stops go unrecorded or are improperly documented. Current New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who succeeded Bloomberg in 2014, dramatically curtailed the police program, prompting backlash from the police union. Last year, the New York Police Department reported 11,008 stops, a small fraction of the amount of stops during the Bloomberg era.
Bloomberg has attempted to use his vast fortune to rebrand his image. The Bloomberg Philanthropy has given grants to various civil rights groups and worked to build schools, libraries, and community centers in low-income and minority neighborhoods, a fact often cited during Bloomberg’s campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination.
The billionaire executive’s largesse, however, can’t conceal Bloomberg’s own words defending the racial bias in his approach to law enforcement. The Aspen Institute comments in 2015 were among many instances in which he defended the program. In 2013, during a radio program, Bloomberg declared, “I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little. It’s exactly the reverse of what they say.”