NEW YORK — Mike Bloomberg’s tortured history with “stop-and-frisk” policing is shaping up to be a hurdle as he flirts with a potential presidential run as a Democrat.
While often touted as contributing to a precipitous drop in crime in New York City, the controversial policy that Bloomberg presided over during his time as mayor disproportionately affected black and Latino men and is widely condemned in liberal circles as a civil rights violation.
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So even though Bloomberg poured millions of dollars into helping Democrats retake the House this year, he could face a backlash from progressives looking to make racial justice issues a centerpiece of the 2020 primary fight, should he decide to run as a Democrat.
“When you couple [stop-and-frisk] with him being out of step with where the party increasingly is on things like taxes, universal healthcare and financial regulation, along with a more progressive base of the party having a louder voice, it creates challenges and obstacles he frankly didn’t have to navigate in his mayoralty,” says Neal Kwatra, a Democratic operative who has worked on the campaigns of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Bloomberg’s approach to the issue appears to be evolving, though he defends his legacy — to the surprise of some liberals.
“The evidence is clear that stop-and-frisk was not what drove the decline in crime. It did drive a huge number of African-American and Latino young men being detained for having done nothing at all,” says New York City Council Member Brad Lander, who clashed with Bloomberg over the policy. “I don’t know why anyone would continue to support it, especially someone running in a Democratic primary in 2020.”
The stop-and-frisk policy goes to the heart of the police abuse debate that has been lighting up Democratic circles throughout the country in recent years. Under Bloomberg, New York City police conducted so-called Terry stops — where an officer stops a passerby, subjects them to questioning and a possible search — often on flimsy grounds, with little accountability, of mostly black and brown men.
None other than President Donald Trump, whom Bloomberg would seek to topple, recently praised the tactic, saying it should be instituted in Chicago. That endorsement was likely a troubling one for Bloomberg, who plans to make a decision on his presidential run by January.
Just two months ago, Bloomberg — who was elected as a Republican and became an independent in 2007 — continued to take a hard line on the practice. “I think people, the voters, want low crime,” Bloomberg told The New York Times when asked about stop-and-frisk. “They don’t want kids to kill each other.”
And in a statement to POLITICO Wednesday, the billionaire former mayor sought to explain why he so aggressively pursued the tactic when he first took over as mayor in 2002.
“New York City had 650 murders a year when I came into office, and the toll fell heaviest on black and Hispanic young men,” Bloomberg said. “We were determined to do everything possible to stop gun violence, both by taking guns off the street and by taking on the NRA — when few other elected officials were willing to do that.”
The mayor touted steep drops in crime, “while also reducing the number of number of people who were incarcerated.”
But in a reversal of his long-standing stance on the practice, which he defended just two months ago in an interview with The New York Times, Bloomberg took credit for a decline in police stops during his final years as mayor — the first time he’s appeared to embrace that part of his legacy.
“The history of the decline in police stops is misunderstood,” Bloomberg said. “As crime hit historic lows, and more than a year before any court ruling, I pledged to a Sunday congregation in Brooklyn and to all New Yorkers that ‘we must and will do better’ by reforming police practices while continuing to drive down crime. And that’s exactly what we did, on our own accord. We cut police stops by 94 percent, while continuing to reduce crime and incarceration.”
Recent police data shows little to no correlation between a decline in police stops and a surge in major crime.
The number of reported police stops have dropped by a total of 98 percent since their peak in 2011. In that time, homicides have decreased 43 percent, while major index crimes have declined 9 percent.
The current mayor, de Blasio, likes to take credit for the decline in stops, but police data indicates the sharpest drop in police stops came between the middle of 2012 and the end of 2013, decreasing 94 percent during the waning years of the Bloomberg administration.
In May 2012, then-Police Commissioner Ray Kelly sent a memo to New York City police officers telling them that they should not racially profile when conducting stops. A former police department executive under Bloomberg said that police officers were responding to pressure from the public, though, and not necessarily an official change in policy. All of the negative attention made them wary of making and reporting the stops, the source said.
New York City Council Members Lander and Jumaane Williams came to the Council in 2010 when stops had reached their peak and played a central role in ratcheting up that public pressure. Both men led efforts to rein in the police department and fought a war with Bloomberg to tamp down the practice.
“With all the information and data that we had, he still refused to accept that this policy was wrong and that was very frustrating,” Williams said in an interview. “We had to spend a lot of energy and time pushing back instead of working together to make it a safe city like it is now.”
Lander expressed bewilderment that Bloomberg until recently still stood behind a policy that current data shows has little correlation to a drop in crime.
Regardless of how or why the stops declined, the damage has been done for Bloomberg among a key demographic of the Democratic party, observers say.
“Stop, question, and frisk — it’s not just the act itself, it’s sort of the psychological damage that it does not just to the individual but to full widespread communities,” said Christina Greer, a political science professor at Fordham University. “That’s the piece that Bloomberg either doesn’t understand, or doesn’t care about, or a combination of both.”
And even if the billionaire former mayor appears to be taking credit now for a decline in stops, he’ll have a hard time squaring his past positions.
Following the passage of two bills by the City Council in 2013 that sought to reign in the practice further — with one creating an inspector general for the NYPD and the other allowing people to sue for racial profiling — Bloomberg said it could be argued that police were stopping too few people of color and too many whites.
In August 2013 a federal court ruled that the NYPD’s policy was violating constitutional rights. Bloomberg, at the time, said he wasn’t going to change tactics overnight and he hoped the appeal process would allow the current practice to continue through the end of his administration.
“I wouldn’t want to be responsible for a lot of people dying,” he said then.
Time would show that decreasing the stops dramatically did not result in mass carnage on the city’s streets.
In fact, scholars and law enforcement experts can only speculate as to why homicides and major crimes have been decreasing in New York City and around the country since the early 1990s. There have been dramatic differences in local and national administrations and policies since then. And academic research has only found, at most, small relationships between crime and stops.
In a 2012 paper on police stops and robbery and burglary rates, Richard Rosenfeld and Robert Fornango said that “if there is an impact, it is so localized and dissipates so rapidly that it fails to register in annual precinct crime rates, much less the decade-long citywide crime reductions that public officials have attributed to the policy.”
Further complicating Bloomberg’s position is that it is unclear exactly why the number of stops declined. Some insiders and observers POLITICO spoke to attributed the decline to public pressure. A former police official said the attitude inside the department changed, and that filtered down to officers.
Under the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Terry v. Ohio, a police officer is allowed to stop a person for questions without violating his or her Fourth Amendment rights if the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the individual has committed, is committing, or is about to commit a crime.
The interactions are sometimes called “Terry stops,” street stops, “Stop and Frisk” or “Stop, Question and Frisk.” And the officer can frisk someone if they have a reasonable suspicion that they or someone else is in danger.
The tactic gained significant attention in New York City in the mid and late 2000s as the number of reported stops skyrocketed. In 2004, the NYPD reported roughly 80,000 stops per quarter, on average. In the first quarter of 2012 the NYPD made 203,500 stops.
After that, even as Bloomberg defended the practice, stops began to plummet. By the last quarter of his term, the city reported less than 12,500 stops.
But Bloomberg never seemed to want credit. De Blasio seized on the issue as part of his successful “Tale of Two Cities” campaign and stop and frisk helped propel the underdog candidate to City Hall.
Just two weeks into de Blasio’s new administration, his first police commissioner, Bill Bratton, said the stop-and-frisk problem had already largely been solved.
The reality behind the decline in stops is likely a combination of many factors.
In early 2007 The New York Times reported on police stop numbers released for the first time in years, finding there had been more than 500,000 stops in 2006.
Within two years, the first of three court cases targeting stop and frisk were filed. In 2008, Floyd et al v. the City of New York, challenged the NYPD’s “stop, question and frisk” policies and practices. Davis v. City of New York, filed in 2010, challenged stops and arrests for criminal trespass in NYCHA buildings. And Ligon v. City of New York, filed in 2012, challenged the NYPD’s criminal trespass enforcement in and around private apartment buildings.
The City Council then got in the game passing bills restraining the department in 2013, but by that point, stops had decreased 71 percent compared to early 2012. Bloomberg vetoed the bills but the Council overrode the bills in August.
On May 16, 2012, federal Judge Shira Scheindlin granted class-action status to Floyd. The next day Kelly sent his memo to the department. The stops started to show a dramatic decline after that.
Roughly a month later, Bloomberg did admit in a speech at a church in Brooklyn that the policy needed to be changed but has since then doubled down on the policy.
In August of 2013 Scheindlin ruled in the Floyd case that the policy as the NYPD was practicing it was violating constitutional rights. Although some attribute the decrease to the court decision, stops had already decreased roughly 90 percent from the peak the year and a half prior.
Also that month, de Blasio released a television ad featuring his son saying his father would be the only one to end stop-and-frisk era. The ad is considered a significant factor in de Blasio’s primary victory.
“This is the period in which not only was litigation at its most intense point, but also the most negative press around the issue and NYPD practices was really in that same time period,” said Darius Charney, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights and the lead counsel on the Floyd case.
But political perception trumped the data, fueled in part by Bloomberg’s continued stubbornness on the virtues of stop and frisk. Perhaps more than any other single issue, de Blasio was able to use the practice to great effect in the “Tale of Two Cities” narrative that propelled him to the mayoralty.
Gloria Pazmino contributed to this report.