Sunday Commentary: Bloomberg’s Troubles Showing Shifting Ground on Criminal Justice Issue

Once upon a time it was January 24, 1992.  Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton not only refused to issue an order of executive clemency to stop the execution of Rickey Ray Rector, he flew back to Arkansas in the middle of his campaign to make sure it happened.

Never mind that at the time they knew that this man’s mental capacities were said to be “that he did not know what death is or understand that the people he shot are not still alive.”

“He is, in the vernacular, a zombie,” said Jeff Rosenzweig, a lawyer for Mr. Rector before the execution. “His execution would be remembered as a disgrace to the state.”

But Clinton, who was criticized in 1980 as being soft on crime when he lost his first re-election bid, was not going to make the same mistake again.  Nor would he when he pushed through the now notorious 1994 crime bill that perhaps allowed him to be re-elected as President in 1996.

That ground has now shifted.  We saw it when Kamala Harris who, by all appearances was a compelling figure, but was undone for her record of not being sufficiently progressive on crime during her tenure as California Attorney General.  Now we are seeing it again with Michael Bloomberg.

Stop and frisk has been a centerpiece of the crime prevention strategy in New York for decades.  With the increase of data-driven processes called Compstat, a data management system that allowed police to track crime in real time, it exploded in New York in 2002 under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Police ostensibly are required to have a reasonable belief that a person has been involved in a crime to stop them.   However, they can also have a belief that the detainee is armed and conduct a frisk, also known as a Terry stop, where they search their hands over the outside of clothing.

The problem is that if you frisk an innocent person, they have almost no recourse.  And if they catch someone with weapons or drugs, the level of scrutiny is low enough that courts will generally not throw them out.

The number of stops under Michael Bloomberg exploded after 2002, peaking with 685,724 in 2011 before  tumbling to 191,851 in 2013. During his three terms, the police recorded 5,081,689 stops.

By that point the community had turned against him – increasingly, it was believed that the policy was racist, with people of color being highly disproportionately stopped.

For years, Mayor Bloomberg defended the policy – believing that, as officers were conducting more searches, crime continued to fall.  And so along with his police commissioner Raymond Kelly, the mayor believed that there was a causal link, that “stop-and-frisk was helping to take guns off the street and reduce violence across the city.”

But more and more people believe that factors other than police tactics and the strong belief of racial targeting started to decrease support for the program.  The New York Times reported: “In 2009, black and Latino people in New York were nine times as likely to be stopped by the police compared to white residents.”

Moreover, their targeting was poor: “Only 14 out of every 10,000 stops conducted during the Bloomberg era turned up a gun, and just 1,200 out of every 10,000 ended with a fine, an arrest or the seizure of an illegal weapon, according to police data analyzed by the New York Civil Liberties Union. A Columbia University professor said the stops were no better at producing gun seizures than chance.”

So when Michael Bloomberg announced that he was running for President, he apologized for stop and frisk.  He hoped that. by acknowledging his role, he might avoid the scrutiny on his record that befell Kamala Harris in California.

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

“Our focus was on saving lives,” he said during a speech at a black church in Brooklyn. “But the fact is: Far too many innocent people were being stopped.”

The New York Times reported at the time: “It is almost unheard-of for a former chief executive to renounce and apologize for a signature policy that helped define a political legacy. Even for a politician as dexterous as Mr. Bloomberg — who ran first as a Republican, then as an independent and now, possibly, as a Democrat — the reversal left his longtime observers astonished.”

The problem is that now the apology looks less like a change of heart and more like political expediency.

The New York Times on Tuesday: “A recording of Michael R. Bloomberg in 2015 offering an unflinching defense of stop-and-frisk policing circulated widely on social media Tuesday, signaling that the former New York City mayor is about to face more intensive scrutiny as he rises in the polls as a Democratic presidential candidate.”

It was a tweet on Monday by Benjamin Dixon, a progressive podcaster, who caught everyone’s attention.

“Ninety-five percent of your murders — murderers and murder victims — fit one M.O.,” Mr. Bloomberg said in the recording. “You can just take the description, Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops. They are male, minorities, 16 to 25. That’s true in New York, that’s true in virtually every city.”

He went on, describing policing tactics and saying, “We put all the cops in minority neighborhoods. Yes. That’s true. Why do we do it? Because that’s where all the crime is.”

A few minutes later, Mr. Bloomberg said the goal was to remove guns from the streets. “And the way you get the guns out of the kids’ hands is to throw them up against the walls and frisk them,” he said.

Backtracking on Tuesday, he said, he had “inherited the police practice of stop-and-frisk,” and acknowledged that 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 — and I have taken responsibility for taking too long to understand the impact it had on Black and Latino communities,” he said.

As we are two weeks out from the presidential primary, Gil Duran, opinion editor of the Bee, writes, “As mayor, Bloomberg systematically violated the civil rights of young men of color. A black or Latino man was no longer considered a citizen by his city government. He was considered a dangerous murder suspect to be thrown against a wall and searched – regardless of whether or not he had done anything wrong, and in spite of his constitutional rights.”

Writes Mr. Duran, “Listening to the tape, I find it hard to believe he’s really contrite. More likely: Bloomberg’s not sorry at all. He only apologized because polls showed his support for stop-and-frisk would hurt his political ambitions.”

Is he dead?  If you listen to the activist wing of the party, the answer is yes.

Wrote Shaun King this week: “But Mike Bloomberg is the line I simply will not cross. I can’t.”

He continued: “Mike Bloomberg directly caused real pain, trauma, and harm to people that I personally know and love. That’s not rhetoric. His decisions, policies, and personal directives ruined the actual lives of countless men, women, boys, girls, and families all over New York City. Many will never recover.”

Gil Duran is not so sure: “The Aspen tape would have ended any Democratic campaign in normal times, but these are not normal times. With Joe Biden failing and Bernie Sanders rising, panic has seized some quarters of the Democratic Party. Faced with what they see as the real possibility of a Trump re-election, some Democrats are shifting their attention to Bloomberg, clinging to a theory that only a billionaire can beat a (supposed) billionaire.”

But that’s a dangerous gambit.  If Michael Bloomberg is the nominee, the activist wing of the party stays home.  And with that Trump is re-elected.

The fact that this is such a big deal, however, shows just how far we have come in ten years.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Ron Oertel

    We saw it when Kamala Harris who, by all appearances was a compelling figure, but was undone for her record of not being sufficiently progressive on crime during her tenure as California Attorney General. 

    I’ve seen no evidence that this was the reason.  Lots of candidates drop out of the race, over time.  I don’t think that Ms. Harris put forth a compelling reason why she was running in the first place.

    The fact that this is such a big deal, however, shows just how far we have come in ten years.

    The proliferation of cell phones has changed perceptions to some degree. However, I don’t think the country has changed as much as suggested by this conclusion.  We’re talking about the same country that more recently elected Trump (and may do so, again). When economies are doing well, it’s difficult to dislodge an incumbent.

    And if crime goes up, watch how fast the country shifts to a “tough on crime” approach, again. (Perhaps aided by cell phone and other cameras – but in the opposite direction from the one suggested by this article.)

  2. Tia Will

    The country may not have changed as much as we would like to think. But the conversations have definitely changed in several important ways:

    1. Health care as a human right has become a majority opinion, not a radical concept.

    2. Research on gun safety is no longer seen as a plot to confiscate all weapons by a majority.

    3. Attitudes towards the LGBTQ community have continued to evolve.

    4. We are moving away from “lock them up and throw away the key” as the best approach to nonviolent crimes and ongoing risk assessment as a factor is gradually replacing draconian sentencing.

    1. Ron Oertel

      I hope so.

      My conclusion is that communities like Davis (and San Francisco) are a “bubble”, in regard to the country that elected Trump.

      Looking at history of national elections (and the makeup of the current Senate), I believe that this country is far more conservative than many would like to believe.

      Trump has largely undone ObamaCare, and there’s been absolutely no progress on gun control (despite continued individual and mass shootings).

      Attitudes toward the LGBTQ community do seem to have shifted (as evidenced by Buttigieg’s election, for one thing).

      Moving away from “lock them up” seems to be driven as much by cost, compared to any concerns regarding rights. (If I’m not mistaken, even Trump took some action on this issue, though I don’t recall the details.)

    2. Matt McPherson

      I have no enthusiasm for another rich guy from New York as president, but his tough-on-minority-crime backstory probably won’t hurt him much where it matters.   Anyone running against Trump must overcome a huge hurdle as the incumbent claims credit for the economy, but the electoral college is also going to be especially harsh on Bernie.

      A lot of people in 2018 turned out to vote for sanity, turning even some deep red districts blue, and there’s reason to expect they will do it again.   I think Bernie could have won in 2016, but the angry populist moment has passed.  However many passionate leftists he bring to the vote in the battleground states, he will drive away just as many centrists to stay home or vote Trump.

      As much as I enjoy Larry David on Saturday TV, I am just as terrified as the Democratic party leadership of Bernie competing in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio.  I have hope with Pete, Amy, or Mike, but rising panic with Bernie.   Please lets settle again.

  3. Tia Will

    there’s been absolutely no progress on gun control (despite continued individual and mass shootings).”

    This is not quite accurate. Although it is a tiny, tiny step, it is a step nonetheless. Federal funds have been allocated for research on gun safety measures. This will allow researchers such as Dr. Garen Winermute of UCD to conduct harm reduction studies without having to personally fund them.

  4. Alan Miller

    If Michael Bloomberg is the nominee, the activist wing of the party stays home.  And with that Trump is re-elected.

    Under what scenario/candidate do you see Trump not getting re-elected?  Most non-activist-wingers of the Democratic establishment seem to believe that Bernie or other activist-wingers winning the primary make Trump a shoe-in.  You seem to be stating the opposite.  You honestly believe that by running someone further to the left the democrats have a better shot at winning the general election?  And what is wrong with the activist wing by ‘staying home’ if Bloomberg is nominated? — are they politically suicidal and/or so spoiled that if they don’t what they want they’ll stomp their feet and hold their breath until they turn blue?

    1. David Greenwald

      I don’t have a prediction to offer.  But I can tell you one thing: the same people scared s-less about Sanders are the same who thought that Trump would lose to Hillary and supported her in 2016.

      I submit their thinking was wrong then and probably wrong now.

      Why did Trump win in 2016:

      1. He lost the popular vote

      2. He won narrowly in key states that he wasn’t supposed to win in

      3. Some Obama voters moved over

      But four: many Obama voters stayed home.  Many of those were people of color and young people.

      Democrats win by getting those two bases out.  That means need someone to excite them.  The moderates in the race won’t do that.  Sanders could.

      Am I right?  No idea.  But that’s the theory.  The moderate taking on Trump did not work in 2016.

      1. Alan Miller

        I disagree with this.  It’s not that some of your points aren’t valid.  And it’s not whether Trump won or lost or about the electoral college – that’s the math – but the point is how did he get close enough to support from almost half the country – so close he could win?

        Before he even won, what was clear to me is that ‘coastal liberals’ were becoming tyrannical in their beliefs, and instead of listening and understanding conservative ideas and conservative people, they were demonizing them, the very thing that causes hell on earth:  dehumanizing your opposition.  Middle America watched identity politics, critical race theory, Antifa riots, and most of all being called ‘racist’ just for being conservative, and of course they voted for Trump over Hillary.  And when the votes came in I laughed.  Not because I was happy Trump won (nor would I have been happy if Hillary won), it was because I knew the left didn’t get it.  I thought this would be a chance for reflection, but instead it’s been a time of obsessive anti-Trump insanity, and the left has only dug in worse on what sent people to Trump in the first place.  And so again, win or lose, Trump is within spitting distance of winning, and he shouldn’t be.  He’s a boorish arse.  Good job not getting it, Oh Left.

        1. Bill Marshall

          Pretty much agree, Alan…

          My opinion is that Republicans and Democrats have been moving far right or far left…

          Not sure about other states, but in CA, NPP (read moderates, fed up?) is now #2 in voter registration, and both the Republican and Democrat parties have declined in %-ages (Reps more than Dems)… depending on the 2020 parties’ “standard bearers”, candidates, that trend will likely continue, and/or accelerate… uber-liberal Demo candidates could well cause that acceleration.

          [Reps have not helped their cause by disallowing NPP folk to vote in their primaries…. a 45 shot to the foot!]

          In CA, at least, NPP could well be #1 in registrations within the 2021-2030 decade… or perhaps a new party emerges…

        2. David Greenwald

          Something else to think about which backs my original point: “ “These are voters who are swinging between voting Democrat or not voting at all,” Kendi says. “And this group of other swing voters are predominantly young people … and especially young people of color. And they swung the 2016 election as much as these white swing voters who had voted for Obama and then Trump.”

  5. Bill Marshall

    Actually it looks like Dems went up, NPP went up faster

    Snapshots in time… I was using 18 mo. old Bee, SOS data… voter registration is up… my decade prediction stands…

    Folk willing to work the polls is down… the County needs 30-50 poll-workers, of any stripe.  The younger, the better… call it succession planning… if you look around at the poll worker classes, you see either gray hairs or ‘colored’ hairs to hide the gray… I still had brown hair when I first served… we are attracting some younger folk, but the trend is not promising…

    On the good side, VBM is up…

  6. Bill Marshall

    “These are voters who are swinging between voting Democrat or not voting at all,”

    Well, I have no sympathy for those eligible, and do not vote… and “bullet voters” I have nearly the same disrespect… neither party has great “creds” at this point… I strongly recommend folk listen (not just ‘hear’) to the candidates, and judge whether they have true convictions, or just judge ‘which way the wind blows’, to further their ambitions.

    Until most folk do that, and judge for themselves, paying little attention to ‘sound bites’, and ‘stump speeches’, America’s representative ‘democratic’ [note little “d”] government is basically ‘scr&%ed’.

    Just my opinion as a NPP, and moderate…

      1. Bill Marshall

        Ok, a “winning/losing game”, no morals/ethics/values… good governance?  Maybe for a Poly Sci ‘master’ … not how I view the world… my opinion, and no way I’ll budge…

        I’ll stick to “knowledge, reasoning/analysis, and morals/ethics/values” … you are fully free to plot your own course… we both can freely choose…

        1. David Greenwald

          The question is why are there so many wide swings in the Democratic electorate from election to election and which we will see in 2020. Because what we saw in 2008 was record amounts of turnout leading to Obama winning, that group stayed home in 2010 leading to huge gains by the Republicans, they then came out again in 2012 albeit somewhat fewer numbers, they stayed home in 2014 and 2016 before coming out again somewhat in 2018. I don’t know why you want to focus on morality, when the issue is causation.

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