During last night's Democratic debate, Michael Bloomberg continued to push an utterly implausible explanation of his transparently insincere turnaround on the wisdom and fairness of the "stop, question, and frisk" (SQF) program that subjected innocent black and brown people to millions of humiliating ordeals while he was mayor of New York City. "We let it get out of control," he said, "and when I realized that, I cut it back by 95 percent. And I've apologized and asked for forgiveness."
Bloomberg did not mention that the annual number of SQF encounters septupled during his administration, from fewer than 100,000 in 2002 to more than 685,000 in 2011. While that number had fallen dramatically by the end of Bloomberg's final term, the 2013 total was still about twice the total in 2002. Furthermore, the drop between 2011 and 2013 was 72 percent, not 95 percent. The reduction touted by Bloomberg is based on a cherry-picked comparison between the first quarter of 2012 and the last quarter of 2013.
While Bloomberg wants us to believe he decided to reduce the number of stops because he realized they were "out of control," the cutback came after years of controversy over the program, including a federal lawsuit initiated in 2008. In 2011, U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin rejected the city's motion to dismiss the lawsuit, and in 2012 she certified it as a class action. That was the year SQF stops began to drop. "It wasn't because [Bloomberg] had an epiphany that it was wrong," Scheindlin, who retired from the bench in 2016, noted in an MSNBC interview last week. "It was because of the court rulings."
In 2013, Scheindlin concluded that SQF violated both the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection and the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. The empirical basis for that decision was damning.
Nine times out of 10, the people stopped by police were black or Latino. Although each of those stops was supposed to be based on reasonable suspicion of criminal activity, police made no arrests and issued no summonses in nearly nine out of 10 cases. And although police were supposed to frisk someone only if they reasonably suspected he was armed, 52 percent of the stops included pat-downs, according to Scheindlin's analysis of 4.4 million encounters from January 2004 to June 2012. Just 1.5 percent of those pat-downs yielded weapons of any kind, and police almost never found firearms, although preventing gun violence was Bloomberg's main rationale for the program.
Bloomberg, who by that time supposedly had realized that SQF was "out of control," reacted to Scheindlin's decision not with contrition but with outrage. "There is just no question that stop-question-frisk has saved countless lives," he said. "And we know that most of the lives saved, based on the statistics, have been black and Hispanic young men." He complained that Scheindlin "made it clear she was not interested in the crime reductions" and "ignored the real-world realities of crime."
Bloomberg's continued to doggedly defend SQF for years after he left office, saying it yielded reductions in the homicide rate that justified the burdens it imposed on young black and Latino men. During a 2015 speech at the Aspen Institute, he explained the strategy, which contributed to a dramatic surge in low-level pot busts, this way:
Put the cops where the crime is, which means in minority neighborhoods. So one of the unintended consequences is, "Oh my god, you're arresting kids for marijuana that are all minorities." Yes, that's true. Why? Because we put all the cops in minority neighborhoods. Yes, that's true. Why do we do it? Because that's where all the crime is. And the way you get the guns out of the kids' hands is to throw them up against the walls and frisk them.
Although Bloomberg's audience may have thought he meant that police were actually seizing illegal guns, that was almost never true: The share of stops yielding guns was 0.38 percent in 2002, his first year as mayor, and had fallen to 0.033 percent by 2011. "The number of guns that we've been finding has continued to go down, which says the program at this scale is doing a great job," he bragged in a 2012 radio interview. "The whole idea here…is not to catch people with guns; it's to prevent people from carrying guns." Bloomberg either did not know or did not care that his "whole idea" was blatantly unconstitutional, since both stops and pat-downs are supposed to be based on reasonable suspicion.
"We have to keep a lid on crime," Bloomberg said during last week's Democratic debate in Las Vegas, "but we cannot go out and stop people indiscriminately, and that was what was happening." Contrary to Bloomberg's current spin, it did not happen accidentally. His avowed strategy as mayor was to "stop people indiscriminately" in the hope of deterring them from carrying guns. The only kind of discrimination police showed was their focus on young men with dark skin, whom they routinely stopped and frisked without reasonable suspicion. If anything, Bloomberg said in 2013, "we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little," judging from the racial breakdown in crime statistics.
As Scheindlin noted in her decision, that argument is constitutionally specious. "The City and its highest officials believe that blacks and Hispanics should be stopped at the same rate as their proportion of the local criminal suspect population," she wrote. "But this reasoning is flawed because the stopped population is overwhelmingly innocent—not criminal….While a person's race may be important if it fits the description of a particular crime suspect, it is impermissible to subject all members of a racially defined group to heightened police enforcement because some members of that group are criminals. The Equal Protection Clause does not permit race-based suspicion."
In a 2018 interview with The New York Times, Bloomberg suggested that his record of supporting SQF would prove to be an asset if he entered the presidential race. "I think people, the voters, want low crime," he said. "They don't want kids to kill each other." As recently as March 2019, he was mocking the notion of launching "an apology tour," à la former Vice President Joe Biden, to make up for a history of supporting anti-crime policies that are unpopular with Democratic primary voters.
Eight months later—a week before he officially entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination—Bloomberg began his own apology tour, telling the congregation of a large African-American church in Brooklyn he had finally seen the error of his ways. For 17 years, he thought randomly stopping, interrogating, and frisking young black and Latino men was crucial to reducing New York's homicide rate. But he realized he was wrong when he saw that homicides continued to fall as the number of stops dropped precipitously. For 17 years, he thought treating people like criminals based on their race, sex, and age was completely justified because it improved public safety. But after talking to some black people, he now realized how unjust that policy was.
What should voters make of Bloomberg's history on this issue? Shira Scheindlin herself recently weighed in on that question.
"Many people are wondering—is he a racist?" Scheindlin wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece last week. "I don't think so. Not if you look at many other valuable things he has done for minorities. I don't believe he ever understood the human toll of the stops of black and Latino men, 90 percent of which did not result in a summons or arrest. But the stops were frightening, humiliating and unwarranted invasions of black and brown people's bodies….I am convinced that Mayor Bloomberg believed that the stop-and-frisk policy…was protecting African-Americans, who were disproportionately the victims of crime."
That seems like a fair judgment to me, although it does not reflect well on Bloomberg's empathy, his intellectual humility, or his respect for the Constitution. As my colleague Matt Welch has noted, Bloomberg's conviction that he was helping black New Yorkers by subjecting them to unconstitutional seizures and searches is of a piece with his arrogant and condescending attitude toward the poor people he wants to save from their own unhealthy habits, epitomized by his ill-fated ban on extra-large sodas. In his heart, he knows he is right, even when the supposed beneficiaries of his policies vehemently disagree.