Michael Bloomberg says he is sorry.
On Sunday, amid preparations for a presidential bid, the billionaire appeared at a black church in Brooklyn and apologized for stop-and-frisk, a method of policing that he championed as mayor of New York City, a method he defended even as evidence emerged that it intruded on and inconvenienced millions of innocent people, humiliating many.
“The police are stopping hundreds of thousands of law abiding New Yorkers every year, and the vast majority are black and Latino,” the New York Civil Liberties Union objected in 2012. “More than 4 million innocent New Yorkers were subjected to police stops and street interrogations from 2004 through 2011 ... Nearly nine out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent, according to the NYPD’s own reports.” Those stats undermine stop-and-frisk defenders, who claim to this day that the NYPD only targeted “those whom they reasonably believed to be involved in crimes and armed.” How reasonable can that ostensible belief have been when it was wrong roughly 90 percent of the time?
But Bloomberg kept claiming that the noble end of reducing gun murders justified the authoritarian means of forcing millions to undergo intrusive frisks on the street, in spite of the Fourth Amendment guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures. He cited falling New York City murder rates to defend stop-and-frisk. As it turned out, the murder rate kept falling after Bloomberg’s successor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, ended stop-and-frisk.
Should Sunday’s apology make civil libertarians more favorably disposed toward a Bloomberg candidacy? No. Stop-and-frisk is not the only reason to worry about the former mayor’s paternalistic, coercive tendencies.
Under Bloomberg, arrests rose steeply in New York City for marijuana possession. The city regulated trans fats, and barred the philanthropic donation of fresh bagels and other foodstuffs to the needy in homeless shelters because the salt, fat, and fiber content could not be assessed by city bureaucrats.
When anti-war protesters wanted to assemble against the impending invasion of Iraq in 2003, New York City, “citing only vague security concerns, refused to grant a permit to march, allowing only a stationary rally and cramming attendees into a narrow penned area,” CityLab recounts. “Hundreds of thousands of protesters were unable to get within earshot.”
And “for at least a year before the 2004 Republican National Convention,” The New York Times later reported, “teams of undercover New York City police officers traveled to cities across the country, Canada and Europe to conduct covert observations of people who planned to protest at the convention, according to police records and interviews.”
Bloomberg favors the use of forcible seizure of private property by the government not only to build vital public infrastructure, but also to facilitate private development deals.
Bloomberg called for the weakening of constitutional privacy protections after the Boston Marathon bombing. “We have to understand that in the world going forward,” he stated, “we’re going to have more cameras and that kind of stuff. That’s good in some senses, but it’s different than what we are used to. And the people who are worried about privacy have a legitimate worry, but we live in a complex world where you’re going to have a level of security greater than you did back in the olden days, if you will. And our laws and our interpretation of the Constitution I think have to change.”
And he cannot be trusted to respect the civil rights of Muslims, as he illustrated after 9/11, when he presided over blatant religious profiling. Starting shortly after the attacks, officers infiltrated Muslim communities and spied on hundreds or perhaps thousands of innocents at mosques, colleges, and elsewhere.
These officers “put American citizens under surveillance and scrutinized where they ate, prayed and worked, not because of charges of wrongdoing but because of their ethnicity,” the AP reported, citing NYPD documents. Informants were paid to bait Muslims into making inflammatory statements. The NYPD even conducted surveillance on Muslim Americans outside its jurisdiction, drawing a rebuke from an FBI field office, where a top official charged that “the department’s surveillance of Muslims in the state has hindered investigations and created ‘additional risks’ in counterterrorism.”
Bloomberg defended the NYPD’s counterterrorism efforts as necessary to keep New Yorkers safe, yet “in more than six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations and cataloguing mosques,” the AP reported, “the New York Police Department’s secret Demographics Unit never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation.” The police acknowledged, in court, having generated zero leads.
Since Donald Trump took office, Democrats observing his misdeeds have repeated some version of the following: Imagine how crazy Republicans would’ve gone had Barack Obama done that.
To any Democrats pondering a vote for Bloomberg, I’d urge a similar thought experiment. Had Trump spent years sending armed agents of the state to frisk people of color, 90 percent of them innocent, would you forgive him? How about if Trump sent undercover cops to spy on Muslims with no basis for the targeting other than the mere fact of their religious identity? What if he thwarted the ability of anti-war protesters to march in New York City?
The next president will be charged with protecting and defending the Constitution. Bloomberg’s track record in New York City suggests that he is the wrong person for that job.
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