Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

Michael Bloomberg’s Stop-and-Frisk Legacy Came Back to Haunt Him This Week

As old audio clips of Bloomberg defending the controversial policing policy went viral, new data showed the practice isn’t fading away in New York city.

(Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Since Michael Bloomberg launched his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, he’s been trying to distance himself from stop-and-frisk. During his 12 years as New York mayor, he greatly expanded the controversial use of police stops to search people for weapons. It was disproportionately used to target Black and Latinx people, and a federal judge ruled the practice unconstitutional in 2013, describing it as a “policy of indirect racial profiling.”

This week, as his support among nonwhite voters began to increase, stop-and-frisk caught back up to Bloomberg. Podcast host Benjamin Dixon posted an audio clip of the billionaire speaking about the policy in 2015. “Ninety-five percent of your murders—murderers and murder victims—fit one M.O.,” he can be heard saying. “You can just take the description, Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops. They are male, minorities, 16 to 25.” The clip went viral, the hashtag #BloombergIsRacist trended on Twitter, and other old clips circulated. 

In one 2013 interview, he says “I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little.” In 2011, when the number of recorded stops in New York peaked at 685,724, 52.9 percent of people stopped were Black and 33.7 percent were Latinx. White people accounted for just 9.3 percent. A majority of the stops under Bloomberg’s watch did not result in an arrest, criminal charges, or confiscation of a firearm.

“I inherited the police practice of stop-and-frisk, and as part of our effort to stop gun violence it was overused,” Bloomberg said in a statement released after the stop-and-frisk clips went viral on social media Tuesday. “By the time I left office, I cut it back by 95 percent, but I should’ve done it faster and sooner.”

“But this issue and my comments about it do not reflect my commitment to criminal justice reform and racial equity,” the former mayor said.

While Bloomberg and his supporters may feel his expansion of stop-and-frisk is a mistake he’s put behind him, police data released last week shows that it’s still a reality in the city of New York.

Police conducted 13,459 stop-and-frisk procedures in 2019, a 22 percent increase from 2018 when officers conducted 11,008 stops. Black and Latinx New Yorkers made up the vast majority of those who were stopped last year, according to an analysis by The Legal Aid Society.

About 65 percent of the stops resulted in neither an arrest nor an issuance of summons. Such stops had been steadily on the decline for seven years since the court ruling.

“This data confirms what we hear from our clients on a daily basis—despite court rulings that the City’s practices were unlawful, aggressive stop-and-frisk has made a comeback in New York City,” Corey Stoughton, attorney-in-charge of Legal Aid’s Special Litigation Unit, said in a statement. “What it really represents is a broken promise to New Yorkers who stood up years ago to end ineffective, unfair and unconstitutional police practices.”

Devora Kaye, a spokesperson for the New York Police Department, said the recorded uptick is “unlikely to be a true increase in stops, but rather more accurate and complete reporting.” 

The NYPD understands that constitutional, biased-free policing is foundational to building community trust and keeping New York City even safer and that every stop that is made in the city is not only done constitutionally, but is both recorded and documented as required,” Kaye said in an email to The Appeal.

But Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at New York’s Brooklyn College and the author of “The End of Policing,” said enhanced police auditing doesn’t explain away the increases. Bloomberg may have left the mayor’s office, but the policing culture he promoted lingers.

“I think mid-level commanders in the NYPD continue to view stop-and-frisk as a useful tool for certain crime,” Vitale said.

“But we’ve never had any clear evidence that stop-and-frisk is particularly effective at stopping street violence. We should be concerned that, under [Mayor Bill] de Blasio, we’re backsliding.”

De Blasio’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Back in November, as he launched his presidential campaign, Bloomberg said he was “wrong” for backing stop-and-frisk and offered an apology to a congregation of mostly Black churchgoers in Brooklyn.

Stop-and-frisk victims won a federal class action lawsuit against the city and the police department in 2013, the year Bloomberg finished his third mayoral term. The city appointed an independent monitor to oversee stop-and-frisk reforms, which led to a 98-percent reduction in the annual number of stops.

But in the context of the presidential race, he has so far avoided devastating blows to his campaign over his criminal justice record. Unlike other presidential candidates—former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar have been questioned relentlessly about their criminal justice bona fides—Bloomberg has yet to participate in a televised debate. He has spent millions of his own personal wealth on TV and radio ads that air in delegate-rich, Super Tuesday nominating contests.

A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Monday showed that 15 percent of registered Democrats and independents support the former New York City mayor, an increase of 6 points from a similar poll released last week. Still, Bloomberg’s record on social justice issues —his defense of NYPD spying on Muslims, his opposition to marijuana decriminalization and his alleged inaction on violence at the Rikers Island jail—have discredited him among civil rights advocates.

Vitale, the Brooklyn College professor, said voters should demand that Bloomberg talk about his plans to address public safety without the use of law enforcement. “We should be asking Bloomberg what his strategies are for creating healthier communities, without locking up a significant portion of the nation’s young people,” he said.

In his statement, Bloomberg pointed to the creation of “the Young Men’s Initiative to help young men of color stay on track for success” and an overhaul of “a school system that had been neglecting and underfunding schools in Black and Latino communities for too long.”

“I believe we need to end mass incarceration,” the former mayor said.