Mike Bloomberg Can't Shake The Legacy Of Stop-And-Frisk Policing In New York

Feb 25, 2020
Originally published on February 26, 2020 6:17 pm

Updated at 2:39 p.m. ET on Feb. 26

Former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg has repeatedly said he regrets the police tactic known as "stop-and-frisk." Still, CBS moderator Gayle King pressed him at Tuesday night's Democratic debate asking, "What exactly are you apologizing for?"

"I've apologized and asked for forgiveness," Bloomberg responded at the debate in Charleston, S.C. "I've met with black leaders to try to get an understanding of how I can better position myself and what I should have done and what I should do next time."

But King pressed again: "What more can you do about this issue, Mr. Mayor, to put people's fears and skepticism to rest? It continues to follow you."

The exchange underscores Bloomberg's struggle to run away from the legacy of stop-and-frisk, which disproportionately targeted young men of color.

During Bloomberg's 12 years as mayor, police in New York stopped and frisked roughly 5 million people — most of them young black and Latino men from some of the city's roughest neighborhoods. The vast majority had done nothing wrong. In 2013, the year Bloomberg left office, a federal judge ruled that the NYPD was violating the constitutional rights of black and brown New Yorkers.

Bloomberg needs the forgiveness of African American and Latino voters if he's going to win the Democratic nomination. His campaign is running high-budget ads, and touting endorsements from African American leaders.

And yet, the issue continues to follow him.

For years, Bloomberg defended the policy, even after leaving office. It wasn't until he launched his presidential bid that he said he regrets the policy. It's a reversal that some people just don't buy.

"It's very absurd, and just arrogance," said Nicholas Peart, who was a plaintiff in the landmark federal lawsuit against the New York's stop-and-frisk policy. Peart says he was stopped by New York police officers at least 10 times.

"I remember squad cars pulling up. They just pulled up aggressively, and the cops came out with their guns drawn," Peart told NPR in 2013. "It left me embarrassed, humiliated and upset — all three things rolled up into one."

Peart now works in Harlem at a nonprofit organization that serves low-income kids.

"I cannot forgive Mayor Bloomberg," Peart said. "If you aren't able to protect the constitutional rights of New Yorkers, how can you protect the constitutional rights of all Americans?"

At Tuesday night's debate, Bloomberg repeated the claim that his administration brought the number of stops down "by 95%."

Actually, Bloomberg did not end the widespread use of stop-and-frisk, even as the protests and legal challenges mounted. Neither did former Vice President Joe Biden, who tried to claim credit for the Obama administration's doing so, at an earlier debate in Nevada.

"Both guys were really saying, 'The plummet in the numbers was due to me,' " said retired federal Judge Shira Scheindlin, who issued the ruling against the New York Police Department in 2013.

"I wrote the ruling, so I guess it was me," Sheindlin said in an interview this week at her office in Manhattan.

Sheindlin said she considers stop-and-frisk a failed policy. After all, crime continued to fall even after her ruling. But she believes that Bloomberg's motives were pure.

"He meant well," Scheindlin said. "However, I think he never understood the human toll. He didn't get it. That's all. Doesn't make him a bad man. To me, doesn't make him a racist. But he was blind."

Not all New Yorkers are willing to give Bloomberg that benefit of the doubt.

No neighborhood in the city saw more stops under the Bloomberg administration than the 75th Precinct in East New York, Brooklyn. Jacqueline Alexander has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years and says Bloomberg should have known the policy would lead to discrimination.

"You know, a person like Bloomberg must understand policy," Alexander said. "How can you not understand the impact of stop-and-frisk in an environment where mass incarceration is such a big problem?"

Other residents said they felt safer when Bloomberg was the mayor. In fact, Reggie Tinnin says he would like to see stop-and-frisk make a comeback.

"Honestly, I think, you know, they should be doing it now," Tinnin said. "It seems like the police don't pay attention anymore. They wait til something happen, then they come."

Even some of Bloomberg's critics may be willing to give him another chance. Take J.R. Clause, who works in the neighborhood as a family doctor.

"I think right now, a lot of people are gonna overlook a lot of things," Clause said, including Bloomberg's record on stop-and-frisk. "If you weigh that against defeating Donald Trump, they'll close their eyes to that and go after Trump."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg is not on the ballot in South Carolina, but he is on the stage right now in Charleston at a debate hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus, where he is being questioned about the aggressive tactics New York City police used under his watch. NPR's Joel Rose went to New York to report on the legacy of stop and frisk.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: If you talk to black or brown men who grew up in New York during the Bloomberg era, you'll hear a lot of stories like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NICHOLAS PEART: I remember squad cars pulling up. They just pulled up aggressively, and the cops came out with their guns drawn.

ROSE: Nicholas Peart says he was stopped by the NYPD more than 10 times.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PEART: It left me embarrassed, humiliated and upset - all three things rolled up into one.

ROSE: Peart told me that story back in 2013, when he was a plaintiff in a landmark federal lawsuit. During Bloomberg's 12 years as mayor, police in New York stopped and frisked roughly 5 million people - most of them young, black and Latino men from some of the city's roughest neighborhoods - and the vast majority had done nothing wrong. It wasn't until Bloomberg launched his presidential bid that he said he now regrets the policy, a reversal that some people just don't buy.

PEART: It's very absurd and just arrogant.

ROSE: I met up with Nicholas Peart, the former plaintiff in the stop and frisk case, in Harlem, where he's now working at a nonprofit that serves low-income kids.

Do you think you could forgive Mayor Bloomberg?

PEART: No, I cannot forgive Mayor Bloomberg. If you aren't able to protect the constitutional rights of New Yorkers, how can you protect the constitutional rights of all Americans?

ROSE: The problem for Bloomberg is that he needs Democratic primary voters like Peart. His campaign is running high-budget ads and touting endorsements from African American leaders, but Bloomberg is having a tough time running away from the legacy of stop and frisk. He was forced to defend the policy last week at his first debate in Nevada.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: I thought that my first responsibility was to give people the right to live. That's...

ROSE: Bloomberg thought stop and frisk was necessary to get guns off the streets and bring down the city's murder rate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BLOOMBERG: What happened, however, was it got out of control. And when we discovered - I discovered that we were doing many, many, too many stop and frisks, we cut 95% of it.

ROSE: Actually, Bloomberg did not end the widespread use of stop and frisk even as the protests and legal challenges mounted. Neither did Joe Biden, who tried to claim credit for the Obama administration at that same debate.

SHIRA SCHEINDLIN: Both guys were really saying, the plummet in the numbers was due to me. The answer was, of course, the ruling. I won't use the word me, but I wrote the ruling, so I guess it was me.

ROSE: This is former federal judge Shira Scheindlin, who ruled in 2013 that the NYPD was violating the constitutional rights of black and brown New Yorkers. We spoke at her office yesterday. Scheindlin said she considers stop and frisk a failed policy. After all, crime continued to fall even after her ruling. But she also believes that Bloomberg's motives were pure.

SCHEINDLIN: He meant well. However, I think he never understood the human toll. He didn't get it. That's all - doesn't make him a bad man to me. It doesn't make him a racist. But he was blind.

ROSE: Not all New Yorkers are willing to give Bloomberg that benefit of the doubt. I went to East New York, Brooklyn, the neighborhood that saw more stops than any other police precinct in the city. That's where I met Jacqueline Alexander, who's lived there for 20 years. She says Bloomberg should have known the policy would lead to discrimination.

JACQUELINE ALEXANDER: You know, a person like Bloomberg must understand policy. How can you not understand the impact of stop and frisk in an environment where mass incarceration is such a big problem?

ROSE: Other residents told me they felt safer when Bloomberg was the mayor. In fact, Reggie Tinnin says he'd like to see stop and frisk make a comeback.

REGGIE TINNIN: Honestly, I think, you know, they should be doing it now. It seems like the police don't pay attention to that anymore. They wait till something happen. Then they come.

ROSE: Even some of Bloomberg's critics may be willing to give him another chance. Take J.R. Clause, who works in the neighborhood as a family doctor.

J R CLAUSE: I think right now a lot of people are going to overlook a lot of things.

ROSE: Even Bloomberg's record on stop and frisk.

CLAUSE: If you weigh that against defeating Donald Trump, they'll close their eyes to that and go after Trump.

ROSE: Clause says black and Latino voters are willing to forgive a lot of sins in order to win in November.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPARKS SONG, "PROBABLY NOTHING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.