When Did Bloomberg Turn Against Stop-and-Frisk? When He Ran for President.



Feb. 19, 2020

Michael R. Bloomberg in November at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, where he renounced the police practice of stop-and-frisk for the first time.Credit...


Days before he announced his presidential campaign in November, Michael R. Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City from 2002 through 2013, renounced one of his signature policies: stop-and-frisk, in which police officers stopped and searched millions of New Yorkers, the vast majority of whom were black or Hispanic and had not committed a crime.

But as his campaign has grown — he qualified on Tuesday for this week’s Democratic debate — and stop-and-frisk has become a major piece of ammunition for his opponents, Mr. Bloomberg has begun to imply that he turned against the policy much sooner than he did.

He has also taken credit for the near-disappearance of the practice by the time he left office at the end of 2013 (the practice plummeted because of a court case whose outcome Mr. Bloomberg fiercely opposed), and claimed that the only reason he didn’t apologize before 2019 was that no one asked him about it (not true).

In reality, Mr. Bloomberg defended stop-and-frisk throughout his time as mayor and continued to do so, consistently and repeatedly, for nearly six years afterward — including in an interview the month before he entered the presidential race.

At a news conference in May 2012, when a reporter asked if he was bothered by how controversial stop-and-frisk was, Mr. Bloomberg said:

“When you do polling, my understanding is that the polls show overwhelming support by the public for the tactics we’ve been using to bring down crime. There’s always going to be somebody who disagrees, and they have a right, but if you were ever to do a balanced story, I think you’d find that it’s a minority of people who don’t like the tactic.

We are very careful to follow the law. We go where the crime is. If our school system were better and if we kept working with families to help them raise their kids, maybe someday we won’t have the crime. But right now, we unfortunately do in certain communities.”

Mr. Bloomberg went on to suggest the policy had saved thousands of lives — though a study released the next year would find that only 6 percent of stops from 2009 to 2012 had resulted in an arrest, and 0.1 percent in a conviction for a violent crime. And he said that neither he nor the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, would apologize for it.

“When we came into office, people always thought that crime was at rock bottom and it couldn’t go any lower. I think conventional wisdom was that crime would go up in this city.

If that had been true, and if we had just held on to the gains that Rudy Giuliani’s administration brought to the city — and he did dramatically reduce the crime — there’d be another 5,600 people dead today. … Nobody should ask Ray Kelly to apologize — he’s not going to, and neither am I — for saving 5,600 lives.

I think it’s fair to say that stop, question and frisk has been an essential part of the N.Y.P.D.’s work.”

In a speech at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, Mr. Bloomberg acknowledged the validity of some criticisms and said he and Mr. Kelly were working to reform the practice. But he refused to abandon it.

“We’ve also sent a message to criminals: If we suspect you may be carrying a gun, we will stop you. Through those stops, the police have recovered thousands of guns over the past decade, and tens of thousands of other weapons. There is no doubt those stops have saved lives.

Now, I understand why some people want us to stop making stops. Innocent people who are stopped can be treated disrespectfully. That is not acceptable. If you’ve done nothing wrong, you deserve nothing but respect and courtesy from the police.

Police Commissioner Kelly and I both believe we can do a better job in this area, and he’s instituted a number of reforms to do that. We believe that when it comes to making stops — to borrow a phrase from President Clinton — the practice should be mended, not ended. That work has already begun, and Commissioner Kelly has said that he fully expects the number of stops to decline.”

As contenders to replace him as mayor made stop-and-frisk a campaign issue, Mr. Bloomberg accused them of “playing politics with people’s lives” and said in a speech to police leaders:

As the ongoing federal court case is now demonstrating for any objective observer to see, the N.Y.P.D. conducts stops based on seeing something suspicious, or witnesses’ descriptions of suspects, not on any preconceived notions or on demographic data that would have you stopping old women as often as you stop young men. That’s not the real world.

If the N.Y.P.D. conducted stops and intelligence gathering based on demographic data rather than real leads, guns would be everywhere in our city, thousands of New Yorkers who are alive today would be dead, and terrorists may well have succeeded in attacking us again.”

He went on to denounce a City Council proposal to ban racial profiling, claiming that if a witness described the perpetrator of a crime as “a 20-something white man wearing a blue windbreaker,” the legislation would make officers ignore the racial identification and “stop 80-year-old black women if they’re wearing blue windbreakers.”

“The legislation is based on the false allegation that the N.Y.P.D. disproportionately stops young men of color. But as you know, stops are made based on descriptions of suspects and suspicious activity only. And the sad reality is on the streets of our city, 90 percent of murder suspects and murder victims are black and Latino, and blacks and Hispanics are the overwhelming majority of suspects in other violent crimes.

The truth of the matter is, comparing stops to the general population is just not rational. Comparing stops to the witnesses’ description of suspects and the identification of suspicious activity, which together reflect the racial and ethnic breakdown of criminal activity, is what matters. And the numbers put the lie to the racist allegations. In fact, the percentage of stops of blacks is less than that of whites and Asians when adjusted for crime reports.”

In comments that drew a strong backlash at the time, Mr. Bloomberg said on a radio show that, in fact, the police stopped and frisked too few people of color.

“They just keep saying, ‘Oh, it’s a disproportionate percentage of a particular ethnic group.’ That may be. But it’s not a disproportionate percentage of those who witnesses and victims describe as committing the murders. In that case, incidentally, I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little. It’s exactly the reverse of what they’re saying. I don’t know where they went to school, but they certainly didn’t take a math course or a logic course.”

The Wall Street Journal reported additional comments:

“For years now, critics have been trying to argue that minorities are stopped disproportionately. If you look at the crime numbers, that is just not true. The numbers don’t lie. … I understand that we’re in a campaign season and everybody wants to do something right for their campaign, rather than help us get out of this terrible situation where a disproportionate percentage of the crime is committed by a group of young kids that just don’t have any future.”

In a New Yorker interview, Mr. Bloomberg said:

“I would suggest to the next mayor, whoever it is, that saving lives is the most important thing, more so than pandering. Stop-and-frisk has been shown to be not the only, but the most effective, tool in getting guns out of the hands of kids.”

After a federal judge ruled that New York’s use of stop-and-frisk was unconstitutional, Mr. Bloomberg complained in a radio interview: “What does she know about policing? Absolutely zero. Your safety and the safety of your kids is now in the hands of some woman who does not have the expertise to do it.”

He also gave a lengthy speech defending the policy.

“I’m happy to say we are on pace for another record low of shootings and homicides this year because our police officers follow the law and follow the crime. They fight crime wherever crime is occurring, and they don’t worry if their work doesn’t match up to a census chart. As a result, today we have fewer guns, fewer shootings and fewer homicides. In fact, murders are 50 percent below the level they were 12 years ago, when we came into office — something no one thought possible back then.

Stop-question-frisk, which the Supreme Court of the United States has found to be constitutional, is an important part of that record of success. It has taken some 8,000 guns off the streets over the past decade, and some 80,000 other weapons. … We have the lowest percentage of teenagers carrying guns of any major city across our country.

The possibility of being stopped acts as a vital deterrent. … The fact that fewer guns are on the streets now shows that our efforts have been successful, and there is just no question that stop-question-frisk has saved countless lives. And we know that most of those lives saved, based on the statistics, have been black and Hispanic young men.

Shortly after the court ruling, Mr. Bloomberg defended stop-and-frisk in an interview with New York magazine.

“The judge is just wrong. We have not racial profiled, we’ve gone where the crime is. I don’t have any doubts that she will be reversed right away. The question is, will our successor continue the battle?

I cannot get involved in the next administration, nor should I. But for something like that, I would certainly make my views known. … The sad thing, which nobody’s willing to talk about, is that most of our crime is in two neighborhoods: southeast Bronx, central Brooklyn. All minority males 15 to 25. We’ve got to do something about that. And unless you get the guns out of their hands, you’re not going to ever be able to do anything.”

Mr. Bloomberg went to a black church in Harlem in late 2013 to defend the policy. Here is his account from a speech two years later at the Aspen Institute:

“Two Decembers ago, my last year in office, some minister from a black Baptist church in Harlem invited me to come speak about stop-and-frisk. And I never turn down an opportunity to explain to the voters what we’re doing. Sometimes people like it, sometimes they don’t, but I went. And while I’m sitting there, he introduced me, he said to his congregation, ‘You know, if every one of you stopped and frisked your kids before they went out at night, the mayor wouldn’t have to.’ And so I knew I was going to be OK.”

When he eventually apologized years later, Mr. Bloomberg would take credit for almost eliminating stop-and-frisk by the end of his tenure (a trend largely attributable to the legal challenges that he opposed). In reality, he still gave a full-throated defense of stop-and-frisk in a Rolling Stone interview after he left office.

“Almost all murders are young minority males killing young minority males. It’s like 90 percent. Take out domestic violence; after that, there’s nothing left. … So you go to those places where the crimes are reported, you look for people that look like the description, and then you use good police work. Is there any reason to stop them? The courts say if you act furtively, or there’s a bulge in their pocket or something like that, you stop them. And what happens is the kids learn, ‘I don’t want to carry a gun.’”

When the interviewer brought up the ruling that the practice “violated the constitutional rights of black and Latino New Yorkers as it was applied,” Mr. Bloomberg responded:

“Well, that’s what cops do. That is the job. If you don’t do that, you’re not going to ever stop anybody. And in fact, one judge did rule that it was discriminatory. We argued — and I am 100 percent convinced it would have won on appeal — that that’s not true. We are not targeting any race. The sick thing in our society is, the perpetrators and victims fit that description, 90 percent of them. That’s where we should be focusing our efforts.

We did two things, really: less incarceration, because you create less criminals, and stop-and-frisk. If you hadn’t done that in the last 12 years, 9,000 more murders would have taken place in New York City, and they all would have fit that description of male minorities, 15 to 25. Just think about the carnage. Think about the families. … I’ve looked at it very carefully, and I am 100 percent convinced that as explained to me by lawyers, we were consistent with the law, that we were doing the right thing, and that we saved 9,000 lives.

You can actually get a list of those 9,000 lives. It’ll be an interesting list. That’s what we should do — run an ad with the names of the 9,000 people.”

Mr. Bloomberg’s “9,000 lives” figure is hypothetical: a statistical extrapolation from past and present crime rates. It is not possible, as he claims, to identify specific people whose lives were saved.

In an audio clip from his speech at the Aspen Institute, which circulated widely this month, Mr. Bloomberg said:

“It’s controversial, but the first thing — 95 percent of your murders and murderers and murder victims fit one M.O. You can just take the description, Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops. They are male minorities, 15 to 25. That’s true in New York, it’s true in virtually every city in America, and that’s where the real crime is.

You’ve got to get the guns out of the hands of the people that are getting killed. … Kids think they’re going to get killed anyway because all their friends are getting killed, so they just don’t have any long-term focus or anything. It’s a joke to have a gun, it’s a joke to pull the trigger.”

He said other cities had higher murder rates than New York because “they haven’t gone after scaring the kids to get guns out of them. A lot of people don’t like the fact that that’s what you do, but that’s what stops this.”

“Put those cops where the crime is, which means in minority neighborhoods. An unintended consequence is people say, ‘Oh my God, you are arresting kids for marijuana, they’re all minorities.’ Yes, that’s true. Why? Because we put all the cops in the minority neighborhoods. Yes, that’s true. Why do we do it? Because that’s where all the crime is.

The first thing you can do for people is to stop them getting killed. We did a calculation on how many people who would have been dead if we hadn’t brought down the murder rate and got the guns off the streets, and the way you get the guns out of the kids’ hands is to throw them against the wall and frisk them. Because then they say, ‘I don’t want to get caught,’ so they don’t bring the gun. They still have a gun, but they leave it at home.”

After a long stretch in which he didn’t prominently comment on stop-and-frisk, Mr. Bloomberg confirmed in an interview with The New York Times (parts of which were published at the time) that he still believed it had been the right policy during his tenure. He did allow, though, that circumstances might be different now.

“We used it at a point in time where there were an awful lot of people killing each other, and it was a technique that we used which was supported by a lot of people who said, ‘Look, we just got to stop this carnage no matter what.’ And based on that, we’ve evolved into using other techniques. But the murder rate came down dramatically, and what I look at is the number of people whose lives were saved by getting kids to not carry guns because they were afraid to be stopped.

The New York City Police Department is very well managed and has stayed within the law. And I can’t tell you every cop did everything perfectly, but I think it was a technique that was appropriate at the time. My job was to do everything I could to stop murder.”

When pressed on the fact that the crime rate kept falling after Bill de Blasio became mayor and abandoned stop-and-frisk, Mr. Bloomberg acknowledged the trend but said:

“Keep in mind, all of this stuff is built on what was done before. So you can’t just say the techniques you would have after kids are afraid to carry guns are different than the techniques you would use if they were not afraid to carry guns.”

During a question-and-answer session at the United States Naval Academy, a midshipman asked Mr. Bloomberg what he would say to the black and Latino communities affected by stop-and-frisk. Mr. Bloomberg said the police “certainly did not pick somebody by race” and added:

“We focused on keeping kids from going through the correctional system — kids who walked around looking like they might have a gun, remove the gun from their pockets and stop it. … The result of that was, over the years, the murder rate in New York City went from 650 a year to 300 a year when I left. … It was a program which we had, and then when the number of guns we were confiscating started to fall and people left their guns at home, we tailed that off.”

Just a month before he renounced stop-and-frisk, Mr. Bloomberg defended it in a Washington Post interview and argued that it had actually helped minority communities.

On the eve of his presidential campaign announcement, standing in the same church where he defended stop-and-frisk in 2012, Mr. Bloomberg renounced the policy for the first time.

“I can’t change history. However, today, I want you to know that I realize back then I was wrong, and I’m sorry. … Over time, I’ve come to understand something that I long struggled to admit to myself: I got something important wrong. I got something important really wrong. I didn’t understand back then the full impact that stops were having on the black and Latino communities. I was totally focused on saving lives, but as we know, good intentions aren’t good enough.”

Mr. Bloomberg reiterated his apology in an interview with CBS News’s Gayle King, and acknowledged that the continued decrease in crime after stop-and-frisk ended undermined his argument that it had been necessary.

“We were overzealous at the time to do it. Our intent was to do anything we could to stop the carnage, the murder rate. What was surprising is when we stopped doing a little bit, we thought crime would go up. It didn’t; it went down. Should have, would have and could have — in looking back, I can’t help that. In looking back, I made a mistake. I’m sorry. I apologize.”

When Ms. King noted that the timing of Mr. Bloomberg’s apology raised questions about its sincerity, Mr. Bloomberg claimed falsely, “Well, nobody asked me about it until I started running for president, so come on.”

People had asked him about it at least four times between when he left office and when he started running for president, including twice in 2019 alone, and he defended it each time.

In a statement after the release of the audio from his 2015 Aspen Institute speech, Mr. Bloomberg said he had “taken responsibility” but simultaneously sought to play down his responsibility by saying stop-and-frisk predated his time as mayor.

“I inherited the police practice of stop-and-frisk, and as part of our effort to stop gun violence it was overused. By the time I left office, I cut it back by 95 percent, 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.”

This statement falsely implied, once more, that Mr. Bloomberg had begun to reject the policy “by the time” he left office.

“I came into a situation where an awful lot of people were killing an awful lot of other people, and it was all pretty much one community. And I just said, we are going to do anything we can to stop the carnage. The first thing was stop the murders. And we brought down the incarceration rate in jails by a third, mostly minority kids. We brought down the murder rate by 50 percent, from 600 to 300 murders, and you know who would have been killed.”


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