Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk reversal points to presidential run

Billionaire apologises for aggresive policing policy he backed while mayor of New York


Ahead of a potential Democratic presidential run, former mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg reversed his long-standing support of the aggressive “stop-and-frisk” policing strategy that he pursued for a decade and that led to the disproportionate stopping of black and Latino people across the city.

“I was wrong,” Bloomberg declared. “And I am sorry.”

The speech, Bloomberg’s first since he reemerged as a possible presidential candidate, was a remarkable concession by a 77-year-old billionaire not known for self-doubt: that a pillar of his 12-year mayoralty was a mistake that he now regrets.

Speaking before the congregation at the Christian Cultural Center, a black "megachurch" in Brooklyn, Bloomberg delivered his apology in the heart of one of the communities most affected by his policing policies and at a location that nodded to the fact that, should he decide to run, African-American voters would be a crucial Democratic constituency that he would need to win over.

Until Sunday, Bloomberg had steadfastly – and his critics say stubbornly – defended stop-and-frisk, which gave New York police officers sweeping authority to stop and search anyone they suspected of a crime.

Bloomberg stood behind the programme even after a federal judge ruled in 2013 that it violated the constitutional rights of minorities and despite the fact that crime continued to drop even after the programme was phased out in recent years.

Bloomberg’s policing record is seen as one of his biggest vulnerabilities in 2020, given that black voters have helped determine the winner in the last nomination contests, elevating Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

‘Forgive and forget’

Moments after services ended, Bloomberg called the Rev Al Sharpton, a prominent civil-rights leader who sparred with Bloomberg over stop-and-frisk during his mayoralty, from his car to ask if Sharpton had watched his speech.

“You can’t expect people like us to forgive and forget after one speech,” Sharpton said he told Bloomberg, promising to hold him to the same standard as other politicians, such as former vice-president Joe Biden, who has walked back his past support for tough-on-crime drug legislation, and senator Bernie Sanders.

At the peak of stop-and-frisk, the racial disparities in its enforcement were jarring. Of 575,000 stops conducted in 2009, black and Latino people were nine times as likely as white people to be targeted by the police (even though, once stopped, they were no more likely to actually be arrested). In 2011, police stopped and questioned 684,330 New Yorkers; 87 per cent of those stopped were black or Latino.

Proudly technocratic and data-driven, Bloomberg had long resisted what the numbers showed so starkly: even as the stops were phased out toward the end of his administration and decreased sharply under his successor, mayor Bill de Blasio, crime rates continued to plunge to new lows unseen since the 1950s. “I now see that we should have acted sooner, and acted faster,” Bloomberg said on Sunday.

Bloomberg acknowledged on Sunday that the programme had led to an “erosion of trust” and said that he hoped to “earn it back”.

‘I didn’t understand’

“Over time, I’ve come to understand something that I long struggled to admit to myself: I got something important wrong,” he said. “I got something important really wrong. I didn’t understand back then the full impact that stops were having on the black and Latino communities. I was totally focused on saving lives – but as we know: good intentions aren’t good enough.”

After Bloomberg stepped down from the pulpit and returned to his seat in the front row, the church’s pastor, the Rev AR Bernard, a longtime ally and former adviser to Bloomberg, shook the former mayor’s hand. “Come on CCC, show some love and appreciation,” Bernard said, amid tepid applause.

For 2020, the critical question is whether Bloomberg’s reversal will be received in the black community as one of pure political expediency or genuine remorse. “After years of running the Apartheid-like policy of stopping and frisking millions of people of color throughout New York City, and then defending it every day in office, then every day he was out of office up until this week, @MikeBloomberg now admits he was wrong,” Shaun King, a racial justice activist and a supporter of Sanders in the presidential race, said on Twitter. “You defended it for a whole generation,” he said. “Now you know you need Black votes and you have a change of heart.”

Did not shy away

Bloomberg did not shy away from the fact that he was reconsidering his record in his last job as he eyed a potential new one. “In recent months, as I’ve thought about my future, I’ve been thinking more about my past – and coming to terms with where I came up short,” he said.

Bloomberg had consistently stood behind the programme until now. “I think people, the voters, want low crime,” Bloomberg told the New York Times last year. “They don’t want kids to kill each other.”

The reversal on stop-and-frisk was the starkest in a series of steps that Bloomberg has taken in the last two weeks to lay the groundwork for entering the Democratic presidential primary, a step that appears increasingly imminent.

He has already filed to be on the primary ballot in two states, Arkansas and Alabama. His advisers have outlined a strategy that would circumvent the four states that vote first in the 2020 nomination contest in favor of the broader map on Super Tuesday, when he could leverage his personal fortune. And he announced plans to spend $100 million on digital ads against president Donald Trump in key general election battleground states, blunting criticism that he could spend his money better elsewhere. Those ads would not feature him, advisers said, and the spending would be in addition to what he might spend on his own candidacy.

Bloomberg played coy about his plans from the pulpit. “I don’t know what the future holds for me,” he said. – The New York Times