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Michael Bloomberg Should Apologize For More Than Stop-and-Frisk, Critics Say

The billionaire and former New York City mayor defended the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslim Americans and mandatory minimum prison sentences for gun possession, among other policies.

Michael Bloomberg Speaks At Predominantly Black Church In Brooklyn, New York
Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, speaking Sunday at Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn.Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images.

Michael Bloomberg, who filed paperwork Thursday with the Federal Election Commission to create a presidential campaign committee, apologized on Sunday for supporting the NYPD’s practice of routinely stopping, questioning, and frisking people throughout his 12-year tenure as New York City mayor. The practice resulted in millions of stops and disproportionately targeted Black and Latinx people.

“We did make mistakes—I made mistakes,” Bloomberg said during a speech at Brooklyn’s Christian Cultural Center, a predominantly Black church. “The fact is, far too many innocent people were being stopped.”

“I was wrong,” he said, “and I’m sorry.”

Bloomberg has long defended stop-and-frisk as a means to reduce gun violence and take illegal weapons off the streets. But a majority of the stops did not result in an arrest, criminal charges, or confiscation of a firearm. In 2011, when the number of recorded stops peaked at 685,724, Blacks made up 52.9 percent of people stopped and Latinx people were 33.7 percent, while white people accounted for just 9.3 percent. Victims of stop-and-frisk won a federal class action lawsuit against the city and the police department in 2013, the year Bloomberg finished his third mayoral term. An independent monitor was appointed to oversee reforms that led to a 98-percent reduction in the annual number of stops in the city.

Bloomberg’s critics, including current New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and civil rights and criminal justice reform advocates, questioned the sincerity of an apology issued several years later. But others have noted that stop-and-frisk was just one among many of Bloomberg’s criminal justice policies with which he must reckon.

“Beyond just stop-and-frisk, there is a lot in the record of former mayor Bloomberg that requires an apology,” Michael Sisitzky, lead policy counsel for the New York City Liberties Union, told The Appeal. “There’s a need for him to realize that his policies created lifelong consequences for the directly impacted.”

Bloomberg did not respond to The Appeal’s request for comment.

Spying on Muslim Americans

In 2012, Bloomberg defended the NYPD’s spying program that targeted Muslim Americans, including university student groups on campuses in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. According to an internal NYPD report from November 2006, the department’s cyber intelligence unit had an officer monitoring websites, blogs, and forums of Muslim student groups at more than a dozen universities, including several in New York City. The NYPD “goes where there are allegations, and they look to see whether those allegations are true,” Bloomberg said when asked about the surveillance. “That’s what you would want them to.”

Ahmed Mohamed, litigation director for the New York City chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he hoped Bloomberg would “see the error of his ways and apologize to the Muslim community for his long-term support for illegal surveillance and targeting of Muslim New Yorkers.”

“Bloomberg’s support for the mapping of Muslims is antithetical to the Constitution and made a mockery of religious freedom and equal justice under law,” Mohamed told The Appeal. “Repentance without concrete actions only goes so far.”

Marijuana legalization

As mayor, Bloomberg opposed legalizing marijuana, and as recently as January he called legalization “the stupidest thing anyone has ever done.” In a 2013 radio interview, he said the drug was “much stronger today than it was 20, 30 years ago. … That’s one problem.” He made the remark as he announced the city’s plan to stop booking people in jail and arraigning people on low-level possession charges. But during his tenure, the NYPD made hundreds of thousands of marijuana arrests. Each year under Bloomberg, Black and Latinx people accounted for more than 85 percent of arrests for marijuana possession—another consequence of stop-and-frisk, said Kassandra Frederique, managing director of policy, advocacy, and campaigns at Drug Policy Alliance.

The Bloomberg-era marijuana arrests “needlessly subjected people to the criminal legal system, child welfare courts, disrupting their housing, and delivering families into the massive deportation system,” she said.

Instead of an apology, Frederique continued, Bloomberg “can use his exorbitant amount of wealth to support on-the-ground organizations working to reverse the draconian enforcement practices he upheld for over a decade in New York.”

Mandatory minimums for gun possession

During Bloomberg’s tenure, New York State had the country’s toughest penalty for carrying an illegal loaded handgun. The law, championed in 2007 by the former mayor and Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, a nonpartisan crime reduction lobbying group, imposed a three-and-a-half-year mandatory minimum sentence for gun possession.

During his speech Sunday, Bloomberg said “stopping gun violence has been one of the fights of my life.” He recalled that when he first took office, several hundreds of people were being killed in violent incidents every year. “Most of them were young, Black and Latino men, and I was not going to accept that. And I didn’t.” 

But Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director VOCAL-NY Action Fund, a grassroots organizing group, said that the law, together with the uptick in police stops, had the effect of further criminalizing communities of color.

“You saw that [Bloomberg] didn’t care if he overcriminalized these communities because they were dangerous to him,” Aguilera told The Appeal. “Casting these wide nets is not only ineffective, it traumatizes people and it stokes the divide and the hate that we’re seeing play out in the Trump presidency.”

Violence at Rikers

Violence at Rikers Island jails rose while Bloomberg was mayor, the New York Times reported in 2014. The rate of use-of-force incidents went up 90 percent during his last term in office, according to data from the New York City Department of Correction.

But Bloomberg did little to address violence at the jail, the Times reported. According to the article, the Department of Correction and Bloomberg appeared to stonewall one watchdog group attempting to address the uptick in use of force and other violent incidents at the jail.

A blistering 2014 report by Preet Bharara, the former United States attorney in Manhattan, and Eric Holder, then U.S. attorney general, also found a “deep-seated culture of violence” and abuse perpetrated by corrections officers against young prisoners, who were also subjected to an “excessive” amount of solitary confinement. 

In a statement to City Limits, which reported on the findings, the correction commissioner during Bloomberg’s last mayoral term said the city “grappled for many years with doing justice” for young prisoners. “Much has been done and still, there is much more to accomplish,” the commissioner, Dora Schriro, said. 

In 2017, Mayor de Blasio announced his support for closing Rikers, after years of lobbying by reform advocates and people who spent time incarcerated there. And last month, the City Council voted to shutter Rikers by 2026 and build four smaller jails in every borough except Staten Island.

“Bloomberg’s inaction really created a sense of urgency that we needed to not just reform Rikers but close it down forever,” Janos Marton, who ran the #CLOSErikers campaign from 2016 to 2018 for JustLeadershipUSA, a New York-based decarceration advocacy group, told The Appeal. 

“The simple reality is that New Yorkers suffered when they were under Michael Bloomberg’s Department of Correction,” he said.

Private police force at Johns Hopkins

In January, Bloomberg found himself at odds with a Black university student group over his support for the creation of private campus police force in Baltimore at Johns Hopkins University, the former mayor’s alma mater to which he has donated billions of dollars

Bloomberg told reporters that he would often hear from parents of prospective students who were concerned about the city’s violent crime rate. “When you have a city that has the murder rate that Baltimore has, I think it’s ridiculous to think that [campus security] shouldn’t be armed,” Bloomberg said, according to the Baltimore Sun.

The students and some members of the faculty said they didn’t believe a Bloomberg-backed police force would make them safer and that his support for it conflicted with his national advocacy on gun control.

“Bloomberg’s comments do reinforce the idea that Hopkins is not actually concerned with public safety but instead is focused on the perceptions of parents and others from out-of-town,” Students Against Private Police, a group at Hopkins, wrote in its statement reported by the Sun.

Bloomberg is not the only 2020 presidential hopeful who has faced questions over law enforcement issues. Critics have confronted former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Kamala Harris of California, and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, over their records on policing and tough-on-crime policies.

In a statement posted to Twitter, civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton urged voters to hold all 2020 candidates accountable for their statements and policies on criminal justice reform: “Bloomberg should be judged by the same standards we judged Joe Biden, the author of the 1994 Crime Bill that led to disproportionate numbers of Black and Brown men going to jail for years, as well as Senator Bernie Sanders, who voted for it.”

But Bloomberg’s criminal justice policies represented some of the worst in the tough-on-crime era, said Jose Lopez, spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform Action Fund, an NYPD watchdog group.

“Contrary to his public relations campaign, Bloomberg was and continues to be a consistent supporter of extremist and discriminatory policing and social policies that increased structural racism in NYC,” he said in a statement to The Appeal.

“For Bloomberg’s apology to be taken seriously, he would need to take concrete steps to make amends and begin to repair the tremendous violence and harm he caused,” Lopez said.

Update: This article was updated to reflect that Michael Bloomberg filed paperwork Thursday with the FEC to create a presidential campaign committee.