Former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg apologized for his oversight of a contentious policing tactic at an African-American church on Sunday morning, seeking to counter one of his biggest vulnerabilities as he moves toward entering the Democratic Party’s presidential race.
For years Bloomberg defended the New York Police Department’s use of “stop-and-frisk,” which a judge said violated the constitutional rights of racial minorities. It shaped his final year in office in 2013, damaging his legacy among black and Hispanic New Yorkers and helping one of his chief critics — Bill de Blasio — win the race to replace him.
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Bloomberg was elected mayor in 2001 as a Republican and went on to serve three terms.
Even as the NYPD drastically reduced the practice on Bloomberg’s watch, he and his police commissioner, Ray Kelly, insisted it was the best way to keep New Yorkers safe.
But on Sunday morning, Bloomberg faced hundreds of black congregants at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn and said he was wrong — one of the surest signs yet of his intention to enter the primary.
“After you leave office, you have a chance to reflect on what you did well, and what you could’ve done better. A lot of people tell you what you could’ve done better,” Bloomberg began.
“Well, in recent months, as I’ve thought about my future, I’ve been thinking more about my past and coming to terms where I came up short,” he said, noting he has discussed the policing practice with friends, civic leaders and his staff.
“Over time, I’ve come to understand something that I’ve long struggled to admit to myself: I got something important wrong. I got something important really wrong,” he said. “I didn’t understand the full impact that stops were having on the black and Latino communities. I was totally focused on saving lives, but as we all know, good intentions are not good enough.”
He acknowledged that crime continued to drop as police moved away from the practice.
“Now, hindsight is 20/20. But as crime continued to come down as we reduced stops — and as it continued to come down during the next administration, to its credit — I now see that we should have acted sooner, and acted faster, to cut the stops,” he said. “I wish we had, and I’m sorry we didn’t.”
“I can’t change history, but today, I want you to know I realize I was wrong, and I am sorry,” he said.
It was a surprising admission from a headstrong politician who appealed the judge’s ruling in 2013. (De Blasio dropped the appeal shortly after taking office.)
“You’re not going to see any change in tactics overnight,” Bloomberg said at the time, and added, “I wouldn’t want to be responsible for a lot of people dying.”
As criticism of the practice mounted during his last year in office, he presented a counterintuitive argument: “I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little. It’s exactly the reverse of what they say,” he asserted.
But major crime has continued to decrease during de Blasio’s tenure as stop-and-frisk has been sharply scaled back. In January, de Blasio announced that the city had fewer than 300 homicides for two consecutive years — a 14 percent drop from 2013, Bloomberg’s final year in office.
When Bloomberg began his first term in 2002, the annual murder count stood at 650.
Some critics of the practice and of the former mayor were skeptical of Bloomberg’s apology. “Up until recently he was holding steady, so I’m very concerned about this 11th-hour conversion because he wants to run for president,” New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams said. “Why would it take running for president to see what everybody has seen for a very long time — that unconstitutional stops were wrong.”
A spokesperson for de Blasio echoed Williams’ comments. “We’re glad Bloomberg finally realized what we’ve known all along,” Freddi Goldstein said. “While it may now be convenient to him to apologize, it’s too little too late. An apology does nothing to reverse the years of harassment experienced by black and brown New Yorkers across the city. Under this mayor, we’ve stopped that racist policy and the city has gotten even safer.”
Bloomberg also used the speech to tout his yearslong rivalry with the National Rifle Association. There is perhaps no issue with which Bloomberg is more closely identified than his opposition to firearms. Aides say he has poured at least $300 million of his vast personal fortune into the cause and last year, 21 of the 24 anti-gun candidates he supported won their races.