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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