Responding to Critics, Bloomberg Omits Role in Expanding Stop-and-Frisk

Michael R. Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City from 2002 to 2013 and now a Democratic presidential candidate, sought on Tuesday to explain comments he made in 2015 aggressively defending the policing tactic known as stop-and-frisk. Here’s a fact check of his statement.

What Was Said:

“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 percent, 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.”

This is misleading. Mr. Bloomberg’s statement, while technically accurate, omits the role he played in expanding stop-and-frisk in New York City. His 95 percent reduction figure — which the Bloomberg campaign said referred to his last two years in office — papers over data showing that use of the technique initially expanded rapidly during his time in office and remained at a high level before declining. And it ignores that the decline he cited was at least in part the result of litigation and political pressure.

It’s true that Mr. Bloomberg did not pioneer the tactic, which allowed police officers to stop people for questioning — in practice, often young black and Latino men — and to pat down their clothing. Stop-and-frisk has existed in cities across the country since at least the 1960s and was adopted in New York in the 1990s under Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

Data from before 2002 is limited because stops were not regularly reported under Mr. Giuliani. But New York Police Department reports obtained by the state attorney general’s office as part of an investigation into the city’s stop-and-frisk policy showed more than 130,000 recorded stops in 1998 and about or fewer than 100,000 in 1999, 2000 and 2001.

After Mr. Bloomberg took office, the number of recorded stops increased sevenfold to a high of 685,724 in 2011 from 97,296 in 2002, according to data from the Police Department compiled by the New York Civil Liberties Union. In Mr. Bloomberg’s last year as mayor in 2013, the police recorded 191,851 stops, a decline of about 72 percent from the 2011 peak or an increase of 97 percent from his first year in office. In all these years, more than 80 percent of those stopped were black or Latino.

Julie Wood, a campaign spokeswoman for Mr. Bloomberg, said his 95 percent figure refers to the decline from 203,500 stops in the first quarter of 2012 to 12,497 stops in the last quarter of 2013. That period accounts for two of Mr. Bloomberg’s 12 years in office.

So Mr. Bloomberg is being “more than a bit disingenuous when he says he ‘inherited’ it,” said Jeffrey Fagan, a criminologist at Columbia University. “It would be more accurate to say that he took a policy in place and vastly and enthusiastically expanded it” during his time in office.

“What the statement fails to capture,” said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, “is the magnitude of stop-and-frisk and the several yearslong period during which stop-and-frisk was through the roof.”

Activists and minority communities repeatedly protested stop-and-frisk during Mr. Bloomberg’s three terms as mayor. But he continued to defend the practice publicly until his foray into the presidential campaign.

During a 2009 mayoral debate, Mr. Bloomberg called stop-and-frisk “an effective tool to keep bringing crime down” and said the Police Department “has struck the right balance.”

“We are not going to walk away from a strategy that we know saves lives,” he said in the summer of 2012, adding that stop-and-frisk needed to be “mended, not ended.”

Stops began to decline that year and more so in 2013, during a trial over stop-and-frisk in United States District Court in Manhattan. That August, a federal judge ruled that the practice was unconstitutional and “a form of racial profiling,” calling for reforms that stopped short of ending its use.

“Throughout the case, we didn’t believe that we were getting a fair trial,” Mr. Bloomberg said in response to the ruling, accusing the judge of ignoring “the real-world realities of crime” and conveying “disturbing disregard for the good intentions of our police officers.”

Mr. Bloomberg’s administration went to great lengths to “prevent the injunction taking effect and extraordinary efforts to get it before the court of appeals before the city government changed hands,” Ms. Lieberman said. For example, lawyers for the city requested and were granted a stay of the ruling, and later tried unsuccessfully to have the ruling vacated.

After leaving office, Mr. Bloomberg continued to defend stop-and-frisk. He told The New York Times in 2018 that the searches were effective at preventing crime and that “the courts found that there were not” civil rights problems with the tactics. In January 2019, he again attributed a decline in New York’s murder rate to the policy, though the number of murders continued to decline despite the reduction in stops.