Potential 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg has apologized for his longstanding support of the controversial “stop-and-frisk” police strategy, a practice that he embraced as New York’s mayor and continued to defend despite its disproportionate impact on people of color.
The apology, however, was received skeptically by many prominent activists who noted that it was made as he is taking steps to enter the presidential race ahead of the 2020 US election.
Addressing a black church in Brooklyn on Sunday, Bloomberg said he was “sorry” and acknowledged it often led to the detention of blacks and Latinos.
“I can’t change history,” Bloomberg told the congregation. “However, today I want you to know that I realize back then I was wrong.”
Bloomberg’s reversal is notable for someone who is often reluctant to admit wrongdoing. It is also a recognition that if he is to compete for the Democratic presidential nomination ahead of the November 2020 US election, he will have to win support from black voters. And his record on stop-and-frisk is a glaring vulnerability that could hobble his potential candidacy if he does not express contrition.
“It is convenient that Bloomberg suddenly apologizes but has done nothing to undo the immense damage he has caused on countless lives,” said activist DeRay Mckesson. “His apology is not accepted.”
Stop-and-frisk gave police wide authority to detain people they suspected of committing a crime, and Bloomberg aggressively pursued the tactic when he first took over as mayor in 2002. Under the program, New York City police officers made it a routine practice to stop and search multitudes of mostly black and Hispanic men to see if they were carrying weapons.
Police claimed that people were only targeted if officers had a reasonable suspicion that they were breaking the law. But while the searches did lead to weapons being confiscated, the overwhelming majority of people who were detained and frisked were let go because they had not done anything wrong.
Many men found the encounters humiliating and degrading, and statistics showed that minorities were far more likely to be subjected to such a search.
“Under Bloomberg, NYPD increased stop and frisk from 100,000 stops to nearly 700,000 stops per year. 90% of those impacted were people of color – overwhelmingly black and brown men,” black activist and data scientist Samuel Sinyangwe tweeted on Sunday. “Bloomberg personally has the money to begin paying reparations for this harm. ‘Sorry’ isn’t enough.”
Patrick Lynch, president of New York city’s largest police union, the Police Benevolent Association, issued a statement saying, “Mayor Bloomberg could have saved himself this apology if he had just listened to the police officers on the street.
“We said in the early 2000s that the quota-driven emphasis on street stops was polluting the relationship between cops and our communities.”
Bloomberg is not the first Democrat aiming to unseat Donald Trump next year who has sought to atone for past positions on matters that deeply affected people of color.
Before he entered the race, former vice-president Joe Biden apologized for his role in the passage of a crime bill that imposed stiffer sentences on those convicted of crack cocaine possession – a law that has disproportionately affected the black community.
The Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, too, said he was “not happy” that he voted for the “terrible” 1994 legislation. And Pete Buttigieg apologized for his handling of race as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city with a history of segregation where decades of simmering tension erupted this summer when a white police officer shot and killed a black man.
The veteran civil rights campaigner the Rev Al Sharpton applauded Bloomberg for reversing his stance, though he added that he would have to “wait and see whether it was politically motivated”.
“It will take more than one speech for people to forgive and forget a policy that so negatively impacted entire communities.”
As recently as this year, Bloomberg had defended his handling of stop-and-frisk.
“The murder rate in New York City went from 650 a year to 300 a year when I left,” he said in January. He said most police departments do the same thing, “they just don’t report it or use the terminology”.
Ultimately, a federal judge found in 2013 that stop-and-frisk intentionally and systematically violated the civil rights of tens of thousands of people by wrongly targeting black and Hispanic men. Bloomberg blasted the ruling at the time, calling it a “dangerous decision made by a judge who I think does not understand how policing works and what is compliant with the US constitution”.
Bloomberg’s successor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, made ending the practice a centerpiece of his first run for office. In a campaign-defining ad, his son Dante, who is biracial, made the case that De Blasio “would end the stop-and-frisk era that unfairly targets people of color”.