Michael Bloomberg’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has been bombarded with criticism of one of his signature policies as mayor of New York City: “stop and frisk,” the controversial police practice of temporarily detaining, questioning and searching residents who were overwhelmingly black or Latino.
Since November, the month he launched his campaign, Bloomberg has issued repeated apologies for stop and frisk. But he has also offered a misleading narrative that omits key facts about his history with the policy.
- Bloomberg has touted a 95% reduction in the use of stop and frisk. But he has not specified that this sharp decline came only after a 605% spike in the use of stop and frisk over his first 10 years in office – and that, if you start the clock at the beginning of his mayoralty rather than in his 11th year, he presided over an increase, not a decrease.
- The former mayor claims to have reduced stop and frisk after belatedly realizing in 2012 that it was hurting too many innocent people. But he has not mentioned how a federal judge made it clear right at the same time that she would soon be ruling against New York City’s use of stop and frisk.
- Bloomberg has also not acknowledged that he continued to aggressively advocate stop and frisk long after his professed change of heart in 2012 – and long after the judge ruled that New York City was violating residents’ constitutional rights and conducting a “form of racial profiling.”
What Bloomberg used to say and says now
Bloomberg served as mayor of New York from 2002 to 2013. Through the end of his tenure and in the years that followed, he argued – sometimes in language critics have called racist – that stop and frisk was a vital public safety tool that saved the lives of black and Latino residents who were disproportionately likely to be both victims and perpetrators of crime.
“I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little. It’s exactly the reverse of what they say,” Bloomberg said in one comment in June 2013.
In November 2019, as he prepared to enter the race, Bloomberg started sounding a different note.
In a January 2020 speech aimed at black voters, he said stop and frisk “resulted in far too many innocent people being stopped. And when I realized that, we took action. And by the time I left office, we had finally cut stops by 95%.”
Bloomberg said in a tweet Tuesday: “I have apologized for taking too long to understand the impact of stop and frisk on Black and Latino communities. I inherited stop and frisk. In an effort to stop gun violence, it was overused. I cut it back by 95%. I should have cut it back sooner.”
Before the big decline, there was a bigger increase
There was indeed a reduction of about 95% in the number of documented instances of stop and frisk – but only in the last two years of Bloomberg’s mayoralty, after he had presided over a six-fold increase in the number of stops during his first decade in office. The decline, in other words, was from his own high numbers, not from the numbers he inherited.
From the time Bloomberg took office in January 2002 through 2011, midway through his third term, police data compiled by the New York Civil Liberties Union shows a 605% spike in the number of documented stops – from 97,296 in 2002 to 685,724 in 2011. (Data on stop and frisk under Bloomberg’s predecessor Rudy Giuliani is more limited, but the number of recorded stops was also under 100,000 in 2001.)
The decline Bloomberg hails took place between the first quarter of 2012, when there were 203,500 documented stops, and the fourth quarter of 2013, Bloomberg’s last year in office, when there were just under 12,500 stops.
Even with this decline late in his tenure, the number of stops in Bloomberg’s final year in office, 191,851, was 97% higher than the number in his first year in office. So, looking at the Bloomberg mayoralty from start to finish, there was no decline at all.
There were warning signals from a court
Bloomberg campaign spokesperson Julie Wood says he came to his realization that stop and frisk was harming innocent black and Latino people around the May-June period of 2012 – as a result of his conversations with “advocates and leaders in the Black community,” including the Rev. Al Sharpton, then-NAACP president Ben Jealous and George Gresham, president of a local health care workers’ union.
But Bloomberg does not mention something else that happened right around that time: Shira Scheindlin, a federal judge, denounced stop and frisk and granted class-action status to a lawsuit against it.
Scheindlin’s words and decision clearly signaled that she planned to rule against stop and frisk. Wood, though, says Scheindlin’s message was not the reason Bloomberg arrived at his new opinion.
Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia Law School professor and the lead expert for the plaintiffs in the suit, scoffed at this claim. Fagan said the “obvious” fact that “they were going to lose at trial” compelled Bloomberg into making changes “so that he could say to the court, ‘We’ve fixed the problem, no need for the court to intervene.’”
“Bloomberg had every reason to deny the court effect and to claim credit for some kind of ‘awakening.’ It was the prospect of a court finding and intervention that led him to cast his action as an epiphany – responsive to the concerns of the Black community,” Fagan said in an email. He added: “Where was that concern for the previous decade?”
Dennis Walcott, who served as Bloomberg’s deputy mayor for education and public schools chancellor, and who remains a supporter, said it is “very plausible” that Bloomberg came to a new understanding without being forced by the courts. Bloomberg is receptive to new information, Walcott said, and had “extensive networks of input” on what stop and frisk meant to minority communities.
“I know people who had been talking to him, including myself, on a number of occasions,” said Walcott, who is black. Walcott said Bloomberg not only wanted to reduce violence but to “make sure that the community was respected as well.”
Bloomberg acknowledged in November that crime levels “did not go back up” after the number of stops fell. In fact, crime in New York City had declined steadily since 1990 – under Mayor David Dinkins, again under Giuliani, again under Bloomberg, and yet again under Bloomberg’s successor Bill de Blasio, whose administration has made much less extensive use of stop and frisk than Bloomberg did. In 2018, there were only 11,008 stops recorded by the NYPD.
Stop and frisk did decline – as Bloomberg continued to aggressively defend stop and frisk
During the last two years of Bloomberg’s mayoralty, Bloomberg continued to be a staunch public defender of stop and frisk even as its actual use plunged.
Rather than implement the reforms Scheindlin ordered and work with the monitor she appointed to oversee New York City’s compliance, Bloomberg filed a quick appeal. He also vetoed city council proposals to increase police accountability for racial profiling. A supermajority of council overrode his vetoes.
“The Bloomberg administration fought like hell to prevent the monitor from beginning his work and the reform process from going forward,” said Darius Charney, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, who was a lawyer in the lawsuit against stop and frisk.
Still, the number of stops did fall.
In June 2012, Bloomberg said at a Brooklyn church that stop and frisk needed to be “mended,” though “not ended,” through increased training and internal oversight. And immediately after Scheindlin’s May 2012 criticism of stop and frisk, Bloomberg’s police commissioner, Ray Kelly, issued a department-wide memo announcing new training and warning officers to respect constitutional rights in conducting stops.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that it’s hard to imagine the police undertaking a major reduction in stop and frisk under Bloomberg without the mayor’s influence, just as it is hard to imagine that the police had previously undertaken their major increase under Bloomberg without his influence.
“The data speaks for itself. There was an unmistakable and precipitous drop in stop and frisk. But there was at the same time a stubborn public insistence on the importance of stop and frisk, and the value of broken windows policing, including stop and frisk, in keeping crime down, preventing murders and getting guns off the street,” she said, so people of color continued to have to fear the possibility of being “thrown up against the wall.”
Jenn Rolnick Borchetta, another opponent of stop and frisk, said that internal police shifts were not convincing evidence Bloomberg had truly had an epiphany, especially given that he kept fighting Scheindlin’s ruling and impeding efforts at policy reform. (Some of Bloomberg’s criticism of Scheindlin was validated by an appeals court that removed her from the case, saying she had run “afoul” of the code of conduct for judges. De Blasio dropped the appeal in 2014, letting her ruling stand.)
Borchetta argued that the reason the number of stops declined in 2012 and 2013 was police officers “deciding not to do these encounters” because of the public outcry, not anything Bloomberg did.
His moves in 2012 “are more consistent with him trying to quell public outcry and undermine the lawsuits so he could ultimately have officers continue with the stop and frisk practice in sum and substance the same way as before,” said Borchetta, another lawyer in the lawsuit and managing director of impact litigation at the public defender nonprofit The Bronx Defenders.
Walcott said Bloomberg’s post-2012 rhetoric about the value of stop and frisk reflected the fact that he continued to see a public safety benefit from the policy even after he had also come to see “the damage it was doing as far as relationship to communities.”
Regardless, Walcott said, the decline in stop and frisk after Bloomberg spoke at the Brooklyn church in 2012 tells the story: Bloomberg did act to make change.
“I think the action was the talk. I think the results were the talk,” Walcott said.