The same week that Michael Bloomberg’s campaign tapped a number of aggregator accounts to unfurl a series of sponsored memes across social media, the presidential hopeful earned digital notoriety for an entirely different reason: The progressive podcaster Benjamin Dixon surfaced an audio recording of Bloomberg defending stop-and-frisk, a practice used by police officers that marked his three-term tenure as mayor of New York City.
The clip was from 2015, during a talk Bloomberg gave at the Aspen Institute; it came two years after a judge ruled that the way New York City police officers implemented the practice violated the civil rights of Black and Latinx New Yorkers. “95 percent of your murders — murderers and murder victims — fit one M.O.,” the former mayor said in the audio. “You can just take the description, Xerox it, and pass it out to all the cops. They are male, minorities, 16–25. That’s true in New York, that’s true in virtually every city.” (Per a report from the Aspen Times, the Aspen Institute opted to not distribute the speech, upon request from the former mayor’s team.)
His quotes quickly went viral. Trump, who once advocated for the death penalty when five Black and Latinx boys were falsely accused of a crime, even called Bloomberg a “total racist” in a February 11 tweet, which he later deleted. Other people began using the hashtag #MyBloombergStory to detail their own experiences with stop-and-frisk during the Bloomberg administration.
Bloomberg disavowed the clip in a statement, saying, “This issue and my comments about it do not reflect my commitment to criminal justice reform and racial equity.” But his comments have not silenced the discussion surrounding stop-and-frisk, and it doesn’t seem likely to end any time soon.
What is stop-and-frisk?
As KQED notes, the practice by police officers of stopping someone they suspect might be acting suspiciously or involved in illicit behavior dates back centuries. But the wave of stop-and-frisk as a supported policy began around the 1960s, bolstered by the Supreme Court’s 1968 decision in Terry v. Ohio: Eight of the nine Justices ruled that a Cleveland, Ohio, detective had acted constitutionally when he arrested a Black man named John Terry who had been carrying a concealed weapon, which the officer had found after he stopped and frisked Terry and two other men because he thought they were acting suspiciously.
While the policy was implemented at varying levels by police departments across the country in the aftermath of Terry’s case before a class-action lawsuit alleged that New York City police officers unfairly targeted Black people in 1999; as Mother Jones noted, the New York State Attorney General’s office corroborated that claim with data of its own. The lawsuit was settled in 2003, after Bloomberg was elected mayor, and required that the NYPD report and review instances of stop-and-frisk for the first time. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, stop-and-frisk reached an all-time high in 2011, with 685,724 stops: 53 percent of targets were Black, 34 percent were Latinx, and 51 percent were between the ages of 14 and 24.
Was stop-and-frisk ever effective?
At curbing the rate of murder and other crimes in New York City? No — there’s never been a conclusive link there. In confiscating weapons, drugs, or other illicit materials? No. In intimidating marginalized communities? Absolutely.
According to a 2011 report by the Vera Institute of Justice, young people in New York City who had been stopped and frisked trusted police less after those incidents; each additional stop in the span of a year made someone 8 percent less likely to report a future violent crime. A little over half of the 13–25-year-olds Vera spoke to said they believed they had been treated worse by police because of their race or ethnicity, and 61 percent said they believed police treated them differently because of their age.
Guns were found in only 0.2 percent of stop-and-frisk incidents, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, and murders and shootings continued to decline after stop-and-frisk was ruled unconstitutional in 2013, suggesting the practice never had that much of an impact on the city’s overall crime rate.
Wait, it was unconstitutional?
Yep. In 2013, a federal judge ruled the way the NYPD enforced the practice violated the rights of Black and Latinx residents. She called it a “policy of indirect racial profiling,” given that over 80 percent of the over 4.4 million stops police made between 2004 and 2012 targeted those marginalized groups. The ruling did not demand an end to stop-and-frisk but did mandate widespread reform; the number of reported stops has since plummeted to just over 11,000 in 2018.
At the time of the ruling, Bloomberg filed an appeal, saying, “I wouldn’t want to be responsible for a lot of people dying.” (A month before the ruling, he told a radio show, “I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little. It’s exactly the reverse of what they say.” 10 percent of the people targeted by stop-and-frisk were white in 2012.) The appeal was eventually dropped, and Bloomberg’s successor, Bill De Blasio implemented reforms shortly after taking office in January 2014. Violent crime in New York City hit an all-time low in 2019.
But Bloomberg changed his tune, right?
Not immediately. There are plenty of instances that indicate Bloomberg still believed in the practice even after he left office in 2013. In 2018, he told the New York Times the courts “found there were not” any civil rights violations with stop-and-frisk. And in January 2019, he credited the tactic with lowering the murder rate in New York City, CNN reported.
The first time Bloomberg formally apologized for stop-and-frisk was in November 2019, in a speech he gave weeks before declaring his presidential candidacy. (Speaking of that candidacy: His criminal justice platform highlights how, as mayor, “he worked with law enforcement and community leaders to drive down crime to record lows while also reducing recidivism and incarceration rates.”)
Bloomberg further disavowed the policy on Tuesday (February 11), after the 2015 clip resurfaced. “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. “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.”
As the New York Times points out, that statistic in his statement cherry-picks data from his last two years in office. It also omits the fact that a court mandated the Bloomberg administration to end stop-and-frisk; it wasn’t a voluntary choice. And as HuffPost notes, that push largely came from local activists.
“It is true that the very end of his administration that stops went way down, but that undoubtedly was a product of all the advocacy and litigation that was taking place,” Christopher Dunn, the NYCLU’s legal director told Gothamist. “He does not get credit for that, and it's notable that he did not try to take credit for it at the time.”
MTV News has reached out to the Bloomberg campaign regarding the specifics of this statement; we’ll update this story if we hear back.