Why the Legacy of Stop-and-Frisk Still Threatens Bloomberg

Two months after jumping into the presidential race, Michael R. Bloomberg has hired staff members in 35 states. He has poured $200 million into advertising. He has crisscrossed the country, visiting dozens of cities far from the standard campaign trail.

But one issue has dogged him the entire way: His use of stop-and-frisk policing as mayor of New York City and his late apology for the tactic, which targeted black and Latino men.

In the clearest sign yet of the threat that stop-and-frisk poses to his candidacy, Mr. Bloomberg traveled to Tulsa, Okla., on Sunday to deliver an unusually personal speech that attempted to show a greater awareness about race. After visiting a church with a largely black congregation, Mr. Bloomberg said at a nearby cultural center that being white likely helped propel his success and announced an economic plan to help black Americans.

But in making those remarks, Mr. Bloomberg is inevitably drawing attention to his record on stop-and-frisk. Its crushing impact on many minority New Yorkers remains a vulnerability for him in the Democratic race, where black voters are deeply influential.

“I think what he said was good, but it doesn’t take stop-and-frisk off the table,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said in an interview on Monday. “It just means there’s more on the table to discuss. I want to hear a plan from every other candidate about how to close the black wealth gap.”

Stop-and-frisk had been a staple of policing in the United States for decades before Mr. Bloomberg took office. But under him, New York City drastically expanded its use: The number of stops multiplied sevenfold, surging to 685,724 in 2011 from 97,296 in 2002.

The practice grew even as evidence accumulated that the stops were disproportionately affecting minority residents. Across the city, a generation of young men felt harassed, humiliated and under surveillance.

And after the city lost a landmark case in 2013, in which a federal judge ruled that New York’s use of stop-and-frisk violated the constitutional rights of minorities, Mr. Bloomberg was defiant, warning that the decision could lead to “a lot of people dying.”

It took him more than seven years to reassess his position, apologizing for the practice at a black church in Brooklyn one week before declaring his bid for the Democratic nomination for president late last year.

His critics question whether that apology was genuine, suggesting that it was intended to mollify black voters, an important constituency in Super Tuesday voting, and left-leaning Democrats.

Mr. Bloomberg, who declined to be interviewed for this article, said in a statement that as he considered running, he kept hearing criticism over the policy and his defense of it.

“The more I listened, the more I began to accept what I had struggled to admit to myself: they were right, and I was wrong,” he said in the statement. “I believe when you get something wrong, you stand up and admit it, and so I started working with my team on the speech.”

Still, the issue keeps coming up, and Mr. Bloomberg trails other candidates among black voters. He was asked about stop-and-frisk in recent interviews with Stephen Colbert and on “The View.” When Democratic-leaning black voters nationwide were asked which candidate they would “definitely not consider supporting,” 17 percent named Mr. Bloomberg, according to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll this month. Only one candidate, Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, had a higher level of disapproval.

Several prominent black leaders in New York City said in interviews that they believed that Mr. Bloomberg’s apology was, as he has suggested, the result of a gradual shift. They said that they had, over time, tried to convince Mr. Bloomberg that the policy was far more harmful to young men than the mayor might have realized.

His supporters said that Mr. Bloomberg had viewed stop-and-frisk as part of his broader campaign to save lives, which included a ban on smoking in restaurants, a war on soda and salt, and attempts to get weapons off the streets through gun control measures, and that he trusted his police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly.

During Mr. Bloomberg’s 12 years in office, the New York City police made five million street stops.

The increase in street stops during the Bloomberg administration did not start with a clear order or written policy. It was more of an evolution of a strategy that took hold under Mr. Bloomberg’s predecessor, Rudolph W. Giuliani.

The Police Department adopted new crime-control tactics, including a version of “broken windows” policing and a data-driven management ethos known as CompStat.

The department was under pressure to bring down crime and get guns off the streets. Leaders emphasized enforcement: more arrests, more tickets and more stops.

Police officers were given broad leeway to stop and question people. So-called furtive movements became a catchall reason for many stops, even if those movements were sometimes nothing more than fidgeting or looking back and forth repeatedly. People were frisked if officers said they noticed a bulge in a pocket — which was often a wallet or a phone.

Nonetheless, the stops became an important metric in the department’s CompStat meetings, where top brass questioned subordinates if the numbers pointed the wrong way.

“Stops became the lingua franca of the department; this was the way that police officers gained currency,” said Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia Law School professor who was an expert witness in the 2013 case.

Crime continued to fall. The number of murders, for example, dropped from nearly 600 in 2002 to 335 in Mr. Bloomberg’s final year in office, far below what many New Yorkers thought was possible in a city so large.

At the same time, however, street stops soared. In 2007, the Police Department released statistics revealing for the first time that the stops had increased rapidly to 500,000 in 2006 from just under 100,000 stops in 2002.

As the encounters rose, many in the city’s poorest neighborhoods were left with the feeling that the police were an occupying force. Officers would detain young black men and pat them down, feeling around their waists and groins for weapons or drugs.

Guns were rarely confiscated. In 2003, officers found a gun for every 266 stops. By 2011, they found a gun every 879 stops.

The debate over stop-and-frisk grew more divisive over time. And Mr. Bloomberg’s position hardened.

Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president and a former police captain, recalled that he met with Mr. Bloomberg at Gracie Mansion during his third term as mayor and told him that the police were overusing stop-and-frisk. Mr. Bloomberg told him that he was going to trust Mr. Kelly.

“He really felt the commissioner was leading him down the right path,” said Mr. Adams, who was then a state senator.

Mr. Bloomberg’s rhetoric grew more provocative, even after the police had quietly begun to abandon the tactic. The number of stops plummeted in 2013, Mr. Bloomberg’s last year as mayor, to 191,851 stops.

That April, in a speech at Police Headquarters, Mr. Bloomberg said there was “no doubt that stops are a vitally important reason why so many fewer gun murders happen in New York than in other major cities.”

In August 2013, after a federal judge found that the practice equated to a “policy of indirect racial profiling,” Mr. Bloomberg was unbowed. He accused the judge of denying the city a fair trial and promised an appeal.

There would be no change in policing tactics, Mr. Bloomberg said, because “I wouldn’t want to be responsible for a lot of people dying.”

Shira A. Scheindlin, the judge who ruled against stop-and-frisk, said it was difficult to watch Mr. Bloomberg and Mr. Kelly disparage her decision.

“That’s always a fear that a judge has — as a result of a decision, something bad could happen,” she said in a recent interview. “You always worry. But the validation is that when the stops plummeted, nothing bad happened.”

The number of murders kept dropping, and New York grew safer.

In the 2013 mayoral race to replace Mr. Bloomberg, the eventual winner, Bill de Blasio, made stop-and-frisk a central issue on the campaign — and has returned to it now that Mr. Bloomberg is running for president.

“Michael Bloomberg had a stop-heavy, arrest-heavy, very punitive, very aggressive approach to policing,” Mr. de Blasio said in an interview late last year with The Young Turks, “in a country, bluntly, that is still coming to grips with the reality of race-based policing.”

Despite his staunch defense of the practice, Mr. Bloomberg had, at least privately, seemed to soften his position over the years.

At a renaming event for the Hugh L. Carey Tunnel in 2012, David A. Paterson, New York’s first black governor, recalled that he chided Mr. Bloomberg over stop-and-frisk. Mr. Bloomberg acknowledged at the time that it was possible that research would prove it did not stop crime.

“He was weighing the possibility that he might be wrong,” Mr. Paterson said.

Others, including Geoffrey Canada, a Harlem education leader, and Dennis Walcott, a deputy mayor and former schools chancellor under Mr. Bloomberg, helped change his mind, according to Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign.

“I told him he was setting up a whole new generation of folks who think that the police were not there to serve them,” said Mr. Canada, who said he had the conversation with Mr. Bloomberg during a breakfast in 2018.

Mr. Canada said that Mr. Bloomberg at the time did not offer a rebuttal, as he had in past conversations, but he was not sure he was ready to change his mind. Mr. Canada recently endorsed Mr. Bloomberg.

Last year, as he considered running, Mr. Bloomberg kept hearing about stop-and-frisk, according to Stu Loeser, a campaign spokesman. There were no internal polls; just Mr. Bloomberg and a speechwriter who carefully pored over several drafts of the apology.

In October, Mr. Bloomberg called the Rev. A.R. Bernard, the leader of a black megachurch, Christian Cultural Center, to talk about apologizing at his church. Mr. Bloomberg told him he had been considering the idea “over the last several months.”

“I was wrong,” Mr. Bloomberg said at the church. “And I am sorry.”

Mr. Walcott, who attended the speech, said that he had spoken many times to Mr. Bloomberg about stop-and-frisk and how often his son was stopped during Mr. Bloomberg’s mayoralty.

Mr. Walcott said he understood stop-and-frisk from “both sides of the fence” in terms of having a child who was stopped and who was also the victim of gun violence: His son was shot in the leg in Queens in 2006.

“What you heard at Christian Cultural Center,” he said, “was the culmination of his evolution on stop-and-frisk.”

Mr. Bernard believed the apology was important, even if some questioned Mr. Bloomberg’s motives.

“I think the timing will be suspect no matter what you say and what you do — that’s a given reality,” Mr. Bernard said. “It’s great you’re willing to admit you were wrong, and you were right in owning it.”