But Bloomberg’s play for black voters may have hit a hurdle: his record on policing. In a recently resurfaced video, Bloomberg is heard explaining his stop-question-and-frisk policies at a 2015 Aspen Institute event. Bloomberg states that “95 percent of your murders — murderers and murder victims fit one M.O. You can just take the description, Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops. They are male, minorities, 16 to 25 … The way you get the guns out of the kids’ hands is to throw them up against the walls and frisk them.”
Bloomberg has recently apologized for the program. But for a candidate telling voters he has the “record and the resources” to win the presidency, an actual look at his record shows that his administration promoted policing tactics that deepened the racial inequality that plagues our criminal justice system. Under his tenure as mayor, stop-and-frisk increased from 97,296 documented cases in 2002 to 685,724 at the height of the practice in 2011. His 2015 remarks suggest that he believed labeling and targeting young black and Latino men as inherently criminal was good policy — but the data show that that’s not true, and the historical record shows the dire consequences that racial profiling has had on black and Latinx communities.
Arbitrary stops, harassment and abuse by police in black neighborhoods across the country were rampant even before the 1960s, and they were a major contributing factor to the nationwide riots of the 1960s. The specific term stop-and-frisk was coined in New York in 1964 when the first law passed allowing police to stop, interrogate and frisk any person whom they believed to be involved in criminal activity and in possession of a weapon. The stops were based on reasonable suspicion — a lower standard than the probable cause demanded for a search warrant.
And although stop-and-frisk was never limited to New York — Terry v. Ohio in 1968 was a key case in establishing legal precedent for stop-and-frisk policies — New York was a critical battleground for the practice. In 1968, when the city’s version of stop-and-frisk landed in the Supreme Court, the justices ruled in Sibron v. New York and Peters v. New York that the practice did not violate constitutional rights.
With that green light, stop-and-frisk continued. In the early 1990s, as crime dropped precipitously in New York after record highs, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton expanded the practice, combining it with a new theory of “broken windows” policing and new computer technology, notably the CompStat system in 1994. CompStat crunched crime data to locate places where alleged crime and criminals were most concentrated. Using data from CompStat, the city argued that it could ramp up stop-and-frisk in hot-spot areas.
Black communities brought legal challenges, asserting that stop-and-frisk violated their civil rights while failing to make their neighborhoods safer. In a 1999 New York class-action lawsuit, a federal judge ruled in a settlement that because of the racially disparate impact of the program, the New York City Police Department must release data on stops quarterly.
When Bloomberg succeeded Giuliani in 2002, he continued to promote the stop-and-frisk program to reduce crime, and under his tenure, the program ballooned. Along the way, New York City served as a trendsetter for police departments across the country, such as the one in Newark, where stop-and-frisk rates soared.
Bloomberg’s remarks suggest the program was driven and justified by data. But the New York Civil Liberties Union showed that the NYPD targeted innocent black and Latino New Yorkers at an alarming rate, and the federal courts agreed in 2013. When a federal judge examined the data, she found that black and Latino people were more likely to be stopped in neighborhoods across New York, even after controlling for other factors such as reported crime rate. Black people were more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts for the same suspected charge and more likely to be subjected to force.
Moreover, the judge wrote, “the City’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to the evidence that officers are conducting stops in a racially discriminatory manner. In their zeal to defend a policy that they believe to be effective, they have willfully ignored overwhelming proof that the policy of targeting ‘the right people’ is racially discriminatory and therefore violates the United States Constitution.”
In response to the decision, Bloomberg told the New York Times: “You’re not going to see any change in tactics overnight.” Despite data demonstrating that the policy was unconstitutional, he wanted to allow stop-and-frisk practices to continue through the end of his administration. “I wouldn’t want to be responsible for a lot of people dying,” he said.
Although city and police leaders argued that the strategies were reducing crime, crime had already begun to drop dramatically after the early 1990s — a phenomenon, known as the great crime decline that occurred throughout the country. The data also revealed that the program was a failure; nearly 99 percent of the time, no weapon was found. There was also no demonstrated link between stop-and-frisks and New York’s falling crime rate.
But the data did reveal that the deep harms of stop-and-frisk policies went beyond inconvenience and harassment. Studies showed that young men who lived in neighborhoods with high stop-and-frisk rates experienced high rates of nervousness, feelings of worthlessness and emotional distress, as well as anxiety and symptoms of PTSD. Stop-and-frisk also reduced engagement with other New York entities, leading communities to avoid reaching out for help from the city via 311 calls.
Bloomberg has targeted black voters for support throughout his presidential campaign, but he apologized only recently, seemingly out of political expediency, for stop-and-frisk after two decades of advocating for the program. Some black voters and leaders still continue to support Bloomberg despite this record, including former Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter.
The 2015 video reveals that Bloomberg didn’t just increase stop-and-frisk during his time as mayor, he also described black and Latino men as disproportionately prone to criminality and said that harassing and humiliating large numbers of them was a nonissue as well as a way to make New York a safer place. He went as far as saying that the police didn’t stop black and Latino people frequently enough. He made these comments even after the courts had ruled that the program was unconstitutional. Today in New York, a modified program continues on a smaller scale but still in a racially disparate way.
As mayor, Bloomberg showed a stunning disregard for the civil and constitutional rights of millions of the city’s residents, only rolling back stop-and-frisk reluctantly as a result of lawsuits. If Bloomberg — or any candidate without a strong commitment to anti-racist polices — becomes president, we have to wonder if he will recognize that the constitutional and civil rights, which the president must swear to uphold, apply to all, including black and Latinx people.