Transcript: Into Bloomberg's Legacy of Stop and Frisk

The full episode transcript for Into Bloomberg’s Legacy of Stop and Frisk.
People walk past a police car in the in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn on Nov. 18, 2019 in New York.
People walk past a police car in the in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn on Nov. 18, 2019 in New York.Spencer Platt / Getty Images file

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Into America

Into Bloomberg’s Legacy of Stop and Frisk

Trymaine Lee: On a Sunday in mid-November, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg took a car out of Manhattan across the East River to the outer limits of Brooklyn. He had an appearance scheduled at the Christian Cultural Center, a black megachurch in East New York. (BACKGROUND VOICE) There was something the former mayor wanted to get off his chest.

Michael Bloomberg: Over time, I've come to understand something that I long struggled to admit to myself. I got something important wrong. I got something important really wrong.

Lee: A little more than six years after leaving office, (BACKGROUND VOICE) Bloomberg apologized for a policing tactic he championed known as stop and frisk.

Bloomberg: I didn't understand that back then the full impact that stops were having on the black and Latino communities. (BABY CRYING) I was totally focused on saving lives. But as we know, good intentions aren't good enough. But I can't change history. However, today I want you to know that I realized back then I was wrong. And I'm sorry.

Lee: And then (BACKGROUND VOICE) one week later.

Bloomberg: I'm glad to announce that I am running for President to defeat Donald Trump and to unite and rebuild America.

Lee: He announces his run for the presidency. (BACKGROUND VOICE) As a former three term mayor of America's largest city who once governed New York as a Republican, Bloomberg is entering the Democratic primary in a new era. The party has moved left on criminal justice issues. And candidates are now having to account for policing policies that devastated some American communities.

Part of the reason they have to address this type of criticism is because they know the importance of the black vote. It's not a monolith. But it's essential to capturing the Democratic nomination. So Michael Bloomberg goes to East New York. He apologizes for this thing he did as mayor. He announces he's running for President. And boom, he's addressed it. Turns out for voters it's more complicated than that.

Archival Recording: I'd rather somebody know that I don't know come lie to me. I don't care what he says. He's not getting my vote.

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee. And this is Into America, a Podcast about politics, about policy, and the power that both have in shaping the lives of the American people. Today, I'm going into East New York to learn about the legacy of stop and frisk in a community that has experienced it more than any other part of the city. And I'll find out whether presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg can shake off this part of his record in order to have a real chance at the Democratic nomination.

Lee: And please be advised that there is some explicit language in this episode.

Lee: All right, thank you. How you doin', good brother?

Jerome Lewis: Nice to meet you.

Lee: All right. Trymaine.

Lewis: All right. Jerome. First door on your left.

Lee: All right. Thank you. Jerome Lewis greets me at the front door of a house (BACKGROUND VOICE) on a quiet residential block in East New York. He's got a young face and is on the shorter side. But you can tell he's athletic. Jerome is a middle school teacher and a basketball coach. And I meet up with him at 6:00 p.m. when he's just getting home from work.

Lewis: I've been here for 33 years. I'm 33 years old. So I was born and raised, never moved outta this neighbor. I'm the commissioner of the basketball tournament around the corner in Miller Park. What else? I'm a parent, black male, (UNINTEL) daddy in (UNINTEL).

Lee: Your entire life you been here in this neighborhood?

Lewis: I lived across the street. My grandmother owns the house directly across the street. You probably was lookin' at it when you standin' on my stoop. And then my mother bought this house. So my entire life, I lived in two houses: this one and that one.

Lee: East New York has a reputation of being poor (BACKGROUND VOICE) and dangerous. When you think back, what was life like growin' up in this neighborhood?

Lewis: Growin' up, (SIGH) ah, man. I mean, it was hard dependin' on who you are. I've grown up in a better position than many of my friends who were, like, a little more financially unstable. Like I told you, my mother bought this house. Like, I don't really have many friends who I can say, you know, their parents are homeowners or college graduates.

Like, when I say that, I mean friends that I have known. But I would go into college and meetin' 'em (UNINTEL) my friends I grew up with. But I've been around it. You know, I've seen some things happen. It's just basketball kept me outta that, you know? But--

Lee: Jerome says (BACKGROUND VOICE) his interactions with police started when he was in middle school. He would do stupid things like steal a bag of chips from the corner store. But he also remembers feeling that something as harmless as the way he looked or wore his pants could attract police attention.

Lewis: I always wore basketball shorts under. So, you know, you got silky basketball shorts on. Your pants aren't the tightest, you know? So they'll sag a little bit. You'll see a little bit of, you know, you'll see a little shorts comin' out the top of the pants or look like they're saggin'. And then you're automatically a target for them.

Lee: Jerome was 15 when Michael Bloomberg took office in 2002. Crime across the city had been falling dramatically for more than a decade. But the year before, there were 649 murders in New York City. Forty of them were in East New York. And addressing safety (APPLAUSE) quickly became a top priority for the mayor. Here's how he put it at the time.

Bloomberg: Now, we have a duty as well, one that rises abusive partisan politics, and one that we will pursue relentlessly. And that is to rid our streets of guns and punish all (APPLAUSE) of those who possess and traffic in these instruments of death.

Lee: Get guns off the street and reduce crime. Those were Bloomberg's goals. Ramping up the New York Police Department's use of the stop and frisk tactic was one of the ways he planned to achieve that. Kids like Jerome who were used to a heightened police presence in the neighborhood now found themselves getting more and more attention.

Lewis: I'm a kid that went to school, went to work. I'm from East New York. I have friends who live a different type of lifestyle. But does that mean it's right for you to harass me? So now you're just randomly hands in our pockets, cuffin' our testicles to look for drugs or a pistol.

Lee: What Jerome was describing (BACKGROUND VOICE) is completely legal. Officers have the power to detain anyone on the street they have, quote, "reasonable suspicion committed a crime or will commit one." That's the stop. If the officer even imagines the person could be armed, they can pat them down. That's the frisk. And it's important to note that it's not only used in New York.

Nationally, stop and frisk is also called a Terry stop (MUSIC) after the 1968 Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio. It ruled the tactic constitutional under the Fourth Amendment, which covers unreasonable search and seizure. One expert told us they don't know of a single jurisdiction in the US that doesn't use stop and frisk in some way. In New York, stop and frisk reached an all time high in 2011. Officers recorded more than 685,000 stops that year.

That's six times higher than in 2002, the first year Bloomberg was in office. (CAR) East New York, where Jerome was born and raised, was the epicenter of this tactic. Police made more stops here in the 75th precinct in 2011 than in any other precinct across the city. 97% of the people they detained were black or Latino. Most were boys and men. (MUSIC) So how does it feel to be stopped and frisked? (BEEPING) Here's how Jerome and other men in his neighborhood described it.

Archival Recording: Super invasive. I'm telling you it's not no (PATTING SOUNDS). It's groping. It comes to a point where they're groping you. (LAUGH) And they don't care.

Archival Recording: Every night, I was getting stopped by the same two cops. They would stop me, ask me where I'm coming from. I'm dressed in khakis comin' from Duane Reade.

Archival Recording: You know, they jump out on you.

Lee: How often would you say that you would be stopped?

Archival Recording: Periodically, maybe two or three times out the week.

Lee: So every week?

Archival Recording: It made you feel like less of a man, you know? Like, 'cause you going, you don't go to other neighbors and do it. You come to East New York. You come to places, the low income. It's just not fair.

Archival Recording: You have no control. If I have to lift up my shirt. Are you kidding me? I just ironed my shirt. I got a brand new white tee on. Last thing I wanna do is wrinkle it. Now I gotta lift it up, do a 360, show you my ass, all kinda shit? Nah.

Archival Recording: The first thing they do, they wanna touch your heart. Oh, if your, if your heart's beatin' fast, they, they feel, oh, now they got the right to search you. It's evidently you were doin' somethin'. What are you scared for? I'm scared for my life.

Lee: Did you catch that? The first thing they wanna do is touch your heart. It's what one guy tells me outside of a corner store. He didn't wanna share his name, which isn't really surprising in a neighborhood where outsiders often aren't trusted. But the way he remembers it, a racing heart could be the reasonable suspicion officers had to prove.

Lewis: Well, you just become immune to it, you know? If I come outside, I know I'm about to get stop and frisked. See, that's probably why catchin' people with guns and stuff like that slowed down or didn't happen. People stopped movin' around with it because they know it's gonna happen. They know. People know. Aight, if I walk around with this gun, I'm probably gonna get caught.

Lee: So did it work, then?

Lewis: To an extent. It worked for the people who was really tryin' to be that person, to the real criminals--

Lee: Which is a small percent--

Lewis: But to the, it's a small percentage. Everybody in this neighborhood's not a criminal. Everybody's not a criminal. How many? (LAUGH) If it's 100 people in this neighborhood, it's not 90 of them criminals. So you're stoppin' 90% of the people in the neighborhood. You're stoppin' churchgoers, teachers, little bit of doctors we got in the neighborhood, city workers, garbage men, regular job people and their kids for criminals that you not even runnin' into.

Lee: This question I asked Jerome of whether stop and frisk worked is complicated. Under Bloomberg, crime went down. But it had been going down since the early '90s. Bloomberg did succeed in getting thousands of guns off the street. But that wasn't just because of stop and frisk. The NYPD also ran gun buyback programs and targeted illegal gun trafficking.

Lee: Through stop and frisk, police reported they found a weapon in less than 1% of stops. And even though a black person was more likely to be stopped than someone who was white, police were twice as likely to find a weapon on a white suspect. In the space of a decade, police made nearly 4.5 million stops. 88% of those people were innocent. No arrest, not even a ticket.

In 2008, there was a backlash to the policy. The Center for Constitutional Rights filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of four men who claimed the NYPD racially profiled them under stop and frisk. Some officers testified that their superiors told them to target young black men. The NYPD denied these claims. But in August of 2013, a federal judge ruled that their use of stop and frisk amounted to, quote, "indirect racial profiling."

The decision didn't make stop and frisk illegal in New York City. But an outside monitor was appointed to oversee changes to the police department. Around the same time that this fight was playing out in New York, other cities began to challenge stop and frisk, too. There were similar lawsuits in Philadelphia and Milwaukee. And police departments all over the country, in Boston, Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Seattle, have all been accused of disproportionately stopping black and Latino people.

In New York, use of the tactic plummeted after that 2013 court decision. But Michael Bloomberg continued to defend it, even after leaving office. As recently as January 2019, he touted the results of stop and frisk in the city. Then, in November, just ten months later, (BACKGROUND VOICE) Bloomberg made that trip I mentioned earlier to the Christian Cultural Center in East New York.

Bloomberg: Now, hindsight is 20/20. I now see that we could and should have acted sooner and acted faster to cut the stops. I wish we had. I'm sorry that we didn't.

Lee: That apology didn't sit well with East New Yorkers I talked to.

Archival Recording: They're not gonna understand until it happens to them. That's the whole thing. You don't, won't know until your rights get violated.

Lee: Is that apology enough for you?

Archival Recording: No.

Archival Recording: Sorry will never be just good. Sorry doesn't cut it. You ever heard that sayin' from our parents growin' up? Sorry don't cut it. Just 'cause you sorry, that don't mean that it, it won't be consequences.

Archival Recording: It's time to make amends for--

Lee: It didn't sit well with Jerome, either. So maybe Mike Bloomberg could say, "Hey, we made it through. I tried to make the city safer. And, you know, it's all good now."

Lewis: At whose expense? You made it through what? 'Cause I was harassed. I don't feel like I made it through. I mean, it has passed. Did we make it through? We didn't make it through shit. Excuse me. We didn't make it through nothin'. It's people who's right now traumatized because of that, you know? They see, they see cops. And, you know, it's like, "I wanna go the other way." But it's not even like that no more. But you just wanna go the other way 'cause what you're used to.

Lee: So they, people traumatized, huh?

Lewis: PTSD. Yes, it's real. It's real out here.

Lee: We're gonna take a quick break. Stick with us. (LONG PAUSE) Jerome's vote, or even every vote in East New York, won't make or break Bloomberg's campaign. But black voters nationwide do have that power.

Ted Johnson: Yeah, black voters are critical. And especially--

Lee: Ted Johnson (BACKGROUND VOICE) is a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice where he studies black voting behavior and its impact on elections.

Johnson: You are not going to win the Democratic election without winning over black voters. And in fact, since '92, no Democratic nominee has won that nomination, secured the nomination, without also winning black votes.

Lee: This support from black voters is especially crucial to Bloomberg's candidacy because of his campaign strategy. As a latecomer in the race, the former mayor bypassed early primary states, places like Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, to focus on Super Tuesday. That's March third. Bloomberg knows he needs this vote. And he's using his near limitless campaign cash to help secure it. In just a few months' time, he spent a staggering amount of his own money on advertising, literally hundreds of millions of dollars.

Archival Recording: When I heard Mike was stepping into the ring, I thought, "Now we have a dog in the fight." I know Mike is not afraid of the gun lobby.

Lee: And then there's his philanthropy. Here's Ted Johnson again.

Johnson: So I think a perfect synopsis of Bloomberg's strategy was in Tulsa, Oklahoma back in January. And he went to Tulsa around a room full of black voters, black local officials, black political and economic elites and gave a rousing speech where he apologized for stop and frisk, but talked about the importance of the black community and things he would do as President.

Bloomberg: That is why I've come back to Tulsa, because the challenge of African-American wealth creation today is inextricably linked to the racial inequalities of the past. And I'm determined to make breaking that link a centerpiece of my presidency. (APPLAUSE) As some--

Johnson: But he went there and was received so well because he had been there the year prior when his charities had given money to a memorial for the Tulsa Massacre. So these aren't new relationships he's trying to form as he's running for President. He's essentially cashing in on old relationships that he's invested in over time in these local communities. They know Bloomberg outside of his role as mayor. They know Bloomberg the businessman who's invested in their campaigns, their memorials, their pacts, not the Bloomberg that was the mayor of New York for 12 years and perpetuated stop and frisk.

Lee: How important do you think that cosign from local black elected? How important is that, that cosign of them actually puttin' their name behind Mike Bloomberg?

Johnson: Crucial. Everyone knew that this day was coming. If he ran for President, he was gonna have to apologize for stop and frisk, especially if you run it as a Democrat, (LAUGH) where one in four primary are going to be black. What the cosigners do is they are giving credibility to Bloomberg, to his apology, to his earnestness, to his compassion for a community that didn't appear was there before.

And most importantly, I think, is that these local black officials have some sway over the local communities. And he's makin' these plays across the country. Essentially every campaign goes to black communities and goes, finds the church, or finds the barbershop. Bloomberg has found the mayors.

Lee: One of his earliest supporters was Michael Tubbs, the mayor of Stockton, California. It's worth noting a Bloomberg philanthropy gave $500,000 to an education reform group in Stockton in June of 2019. That's according to the New York Times. And California is a Super Tuesday state. (BACKGROUND VOICE) Standing next to Tubbs back in December, Bloomberg was asked about stop and frisk.

Archival Recording: Question about stop and frisk. I mean, there are (UNINTEL PHRASE) of legacy of stop and frisk, 12 years ago. How do you convince (UNINTEL) state as diverse as California with that legacy? (BACKGROUND VOICE)

Lee: Tubbs took the mic to defend him.

Michael Tubbs: So, so absolutely. I think it's, it's a fair question. And again, that's no surprise to anyone. I'm young. I'm black. My father's still incarcerated. So issues about criminal justice are deeply personal for me. And what I would say, and I, me and Mike Bloomberg have had (NOISE) had this conversation, even before he was running for President.

I think we all recognize now in 2019 that stop and frisk is not a good policy. It's terrible. Courts have decided he's apologized. He's moved on. If you look at every candidate in the field, there's a issue with criminal justice. You have folks who wrote the '94 crime bill which created mass incarceration. You have folks who voted for the '94 crime bill. You have folks who supported Ronald Reagan. So there's not a candidate in 2019 who has a criminal justice that's where we are today. But I think the sign of a good leader is one who apologizes.

Lee: The point Tubbs makes is valid. Candidates always face questions about their past. And Bloomberg is no exception. But he can't seem to shake this piece of his New York record. Earlier this month, Bernie Sanders supporter and Podcaster Benjamin Dixon tweeted out and edited recording of Michael Bloomberg from 2015.

Bloomberg: I'm (UNINTEL PHRASE) murders, murderers have murdered victims. Then why (UNINTEL PHRASE). You can just take the description, Xerox it, pass it out to all the cops. They are male and already (UNINTEL PHRASE).

Lee: The recording is from a conversation in front of a live audience at the Aspen Institute, a think tank. NBC reviewed the full audio which is available on YouTube. (BACKGROUND VOICE) It's a little hard to hear. But Bloomberg says when it comes to murder suspects and victims, quote, "You can take one suspect description, Xerox it, and pass it out to all the cops. They are male minorities 16 to 25."

Bloomberg: Put those cops where the crime is in minority neighborhoods. So this is 100% unintended consequence of this. People say, "Oh, my God. You are arresting kids for marijuana that are all minorities." Yes, that's true. Why? Because we put all the cops in minority neighborhoods. Yes, that's true. Why'd we do it? 'Cause that's where all the crime is. And the first--

Lee: And again, if you didn't catch all of that, he says, quote, "We put all the cops in the minority neighbors because that's where all the crime is."

Bloomberg: And (UNINTEL PHRASE) is that's to throw one against the wall and frisk 'em.

Lee: "The way you get the guns out of the kids' hands is to throw them up against the wall and frisk them." (MUSIC) The language Bloomberg used was much more raw than anything we'd heard from him on stop and frisk. And the recording became national news almost immediately. Bloomberg's campaign quickly issued a statement that read, quote, "I inherited the police practice of stop and frisk. And as part of our effort to stop gun violence, it was overused."

The statement reiterated that he had apologized. Bloomberg also deployed some of his surrogates to defend him in the media and held a conference call with the Black Economic Alliance. But there he was, on the debate stage for the first time last week. And again, stop and frisk. (BACKGROUND VOICE) Here's my colleague, Lester Holt.

Lester Holt: At the beginning of this debate--

Archival Recording: We're comin' back.

Holt: You took some incoming fire on this next topic. So let's get into it. In 2015, this is how you describe your policing policy as mayor. Quote, "We put all the cops in the minority neighbors." And you explain that is, quote, "because that's where all the crime is." You went on to say, "And the way you should get the guns outta the kids' hands is to throw them against the wall and frisk them." You've apologized for that policy. But what does that kind of language say about how you view people of color or people in minority neighborhoods?

Bloomberg: We adopted a policy which had been in place, the policy that all big police departments use of stop and frisk. What happened, however, was it got out of control.

Lee: Bloomberg's rivals took the opportunity (BACKGROUND VOICE) to eviscerate him.

Archival Recording: It's not whether he apologized or not. It's the policy. The policy was abhorrent.

Elizabeth Warren: When the mayor says that he apologized, listen very closely to the apology. The language he used is about stop and frisk. It's about how it turned out. Now, this isn't about how it turned out. This is about what it was designed to do to begin with. (APPLAUSE) It targeted communities of color. It targeted black and brown men from the beginning.

Lee: I asked Ted Johnson from the Brennan Center whether Bloomberg can overcome stop and frisk. To go back and listen to the Aspen recording, how much explicitly do you think black voters will think about that recording? How much will that alter the way they behave in terms of their voting?

Johnson: Yeah, so those recordings from the past, from Aspen and other places, are going to hurt him. And the question is how far those recordings are circulated and who they reach relative to how far his campaign advertising circulates and who sees those things. And we don't really know how this is gonna play out. But we do know from political science and political psychology that the messages voters receive, the messages that stick and that influence their voting behavior, are ones they hear the most. And they're ones they hear closest to the election itself. That's more likely to be an ad from Bloomberg than it is to be a video of something he said in the past.

Lee: And black voters, and I don't wanna overstate this, and you can correct me if I'm wrong. But black voters seem very forgiving. (LAUGH)

Johnson: That's right. That's right. Some of that is in sort of the deep south religious roots that have propagated with the Great Migration. But some of it is it's a strategic forgiveness that says we now have accumulated political capital over this person. And this person understands that if they want to hold office, they're gonna need our support. Therefore, if they win, they're going to owe something to us.

And that, and we can now make advances on our policy agenda because this person has made mistakes in the past that have offended us. And so it's not forgiveness for the sake of forgiveness. It is a strategic forgiveness for the sake of political pragmatism in hopes of furthering the civil rights agenda writ large and reducing racial inequality in the country.

Lee: And the polls back up that idea of strategic forgiveness. Back in January, Quinnipiac had Bloomberg polling at 8% with black Democratic voters. By mid-February, just before that 2015 recording came out, he had surged ahead in the same poll to second place with 22% of black support, just behind former vice president (SIREN) Joe Biden. But back in East New York, Jerome Lewis isn't ready to move on.

Lewis: Well, no. But if you spill somethin' on my floor right now, the first thing you're gonna do is what?

Lee: Go clean it up--

Lewis: Try to clean it up. He's runnin' for President. He's been tryin' to clean up everything he did wrong.

Lee: So Mike Bloomberg is tryin' to get the black vote. And he comes to New York sayin', "Hey, listen, I was the mayor. You know me."

Lewis: Yeah, we know you. (LAUGH) We don't wanna know anything or more about you. We thought, I'd rather somebody knew that I don't know come lie to me. Give me a fair shot. All right. You didn't do nothin' wrong. Lemme believe you. You're not gonna lie to me. I'm not that, I'm not stupid.

Like, he's not getting my vote. I don't give a fuck what he says. Excuse me. Sorry. I don't care what he says. He's not getting my vote. (MUSIC) I told you, right? I said I'll vote Republican before I vote for him. (LAUGH) It's just not gonna happen because I know what he did already. I don't forget. We, nobody ever forgets.

Lee: We reached out to Michael Bloomberg's campaign. But we haven't gotten a response.

Lee: It's pretty clear from my time in East New York that black voters here (BACKGROUND VOICE) will be hard-pressed to back Michael Bloomberg. The bit test will be Super Tuesday. That's when we'll learn whether black voters across the country are willing to accept Bloomberg's legacy on stop and frisk, and his apology.

Archival Recording: I'm glad somebody even care about this shit, bro--

Lee: That's important, man.

Archival Recording: Like, think about how long, how long, the last ten years (LAUGH) later y'all comin' back. (SIREN) Nobody did this in the last ten years.

Lee: Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back next Thursday.