Bloomberg’s misleading comments on stop-and-frisk

The former NYC mayor’s justification for the racial breakdown of stop-and-frisk isn’t supported by data.

Michael Bloomberg in Oklahoma City.

Michael Bloomberg in Oklahoma City. Michael Bloomberg/Flickr

On Monday, an audio clip from 2015 of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg defending stop-and-frisk surfaced and went viral. In the recording, Bloomberg is heard saying that 95% of murderers are “male, minorities, 16 to 25” – a description that according to Bloomberg you can “Xerox it and pass it out to all cops.” He goes on to say that he “put all the cops in minority neighborhoods” because “that’s where all the crime is.” Bloomberg made the same argument as mayor in a 2013 radio interview. Consistently throughout his 12-year tenure, 90% of people stopped every year were black and Hispanic. In response to the allegation that this breakdown shows racial bias, Bloomberg responded, “I think, we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little.”

On Tuesday, in an effort to calm the online outrage and condemnation, the Bloomberg campaign released a statement: “I inherited the police practice of stop-and-frisk, and as part of our effort to stop gun violence it was overused. By the time I left office, I cut it back by 95%, but I should’ve done it faster and sooner. I regret that and I have apologized.”

Bloomberg’s statement is misleading at best and gaslighting at worst. In his last year in office the NYPD recorded nearly 100,000 more stops than they did in his first year: 97,296 vs. 191,851. That’s closer to a 100% increase than a 95% reduction he now claims. But what happened in the middle matters too: By 2011, the NYPD made 685,724 in a single year. That’s a 600% increase during Bloomberg’s first nine years in City Hall. Only 9% of those stopped in 2011 were white.

The most generous year-to-year decrease that can be attributed to Bloomberg is about 70% decrease from the explosions of stops in 2011 to the end of his tenure in 2013 – but that would be like celebrating a firefighter for putting out a fire that he started. (Bloomberg’s campaign told the New York Times the 95% reduction refers to a comparison from the first quarter of 2012 to the last quarter of 2013.) 

Bloomberg’s justification for the racial breakdown of stops does not hold up when the data is scrutinized. NYPD officers under Bloomberg continued to disproportionately stop-and-frisk New Yorkers of color even though stops of white pedestrians were more likely to result in an arrest or contraband being recovered. A 2010 study by Dr. Jeffrey Fagan of Columbia Law analyzed nearly 3 million police stops conducted by the NYPD between 2004 and 2009. Fagan found that neighborhood crime rates could not predict the number of stops of violent crime suspects generally, or gun crime suspects specifically, and the search was “based solely on the racial composition of the area.” It is unsurprising then that Fagan found that black suspects were 8.3% less likely to be arrested or be issued a citation than white suspects who were stopped. 

The analysis also found that guns were seized in a laughable 0.15% of all stops – a rate that seems extremely low to actually lead to some deterrence effect. 

There are now decades of data that show that stop-and-frisk is racially biased and does not reduce crime, including data that was available to Bloomberg the day he took office. Following the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed black man in the Bronx, 41 times by four plain-clothed NYPD officers, then-Attorney General Elliot Spitzer ordered a study of stop-and-frisk in New York City. He tapped Fagan to analyze stops. The report found that stops of black and Hispanic pedestrians were less likely to end in an arrest than stops of white pedestrians. 

On top of racial bias and lack of relationship with crime, the report also found constitutional problems with stop-and-frisk. The 1968 Terry v. Ohio Supreme Court that formalized stop-and-frisk requires officers to be able to articulate were suspicious based on facts and their experience -- “male, minorities, 16 to 25” is not a constitutionally legitimate answer. The Spitzer report found that in only 40% of stops, the forms filled by police articulated the factual basis for a reasonable suspicion. In all other stops, the information was either missing, insufficient, or did not meet the legal standard.

This history is important because it goes to the heart of what is so misleading in Bloomberg’s claim that he “inherited” stop-and-frisk. Fagan also conducted the statistical analysis for Spitzer's 1999 report. “At the time Bloomberg took office the report was available, the evidence is pretty straightforward that [stop-and-frisk] wasn't really responsible for the drop in crime,” Fagan told City & State NY on Wednesday. “It was biased. And not only was it biased, it was unconstitutional.”

In 2013, Judge Shira A. Scheindlin ruled that the NYPD conducted stop-and-frisk in an unconstitutional and racially discriminatory biased manner. Her decision was informed by Fagan’s 2010 analysis of stops stops during Bloomberg’s tenure, which showed the same results as his 1999 report: racial bias, no relationship between crime rate and stops, and disregard to the standard of reasonable suspicion. 

Bloomberg appealed the ruling – not the actions of a mayor trying to “cut it back.” In a press conference after the the court’s decision he held onto the claim that stop-and-frisk saved lives, despite no evidence to support that. He warned that the decision would “make our city, and in fact the whole country, a more dangerous place.” 

He was wrong, again. After taking office in 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio dropped the appeal. Stops continued to go down and so did the homicide and violent crime rate

The NYPD still stops-and-frisks on a much smaller scale. Racial disparities persist and, according to civil libertarians, so do unconstitutional stops.

Bloomberg was wrong about stop-and-frisk from the moment he took office until about the time he decided to run for president. He can’t reverse the clock on stop-and-frisk, but the least he can do is not attempt to rewrite history and erase his culpability in the mass harassment of New Yorkers of color.