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Analysis

Audio clip lays bare Bloomberg's stop-and-frisk problem

Former New York City mayor Mike Bloomberg, left, holds hands with District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser, right, after she endorsed Bloomberg for president on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020.

TONI L. SANDYS/THE WASHINGTON POST

By AARON BLAKE | The Washington Post | Published: February 11, 2020

Mike Bloomberg is running an unorthodox and unprecedented campaign in which he's skipping the first four states but carpet-bombing the rest of the country with a quarter-billion dollars' worth of spending. This tack has allowed him to run his campaign virtually unchallenged and gain momentum.

The result: A poll Monday showed him hitting 15% nationally. The result of that: more scrutiny.

Bloomberg's opponents on Monday began circulating audio of a 2015 speech in which the former mayor speaks in unvarnished terms about New York City's stop-and-frisk policy targeting minorities. The basics of what Bloomberg said: Minorities are responsible for the vast majority of violent crime, and thus their communities were the logical targets for warrantless searches.

And now not only are Bloomberg's Democratic opponents circulating the clip; so is President Donald Trump.

Trump, who is reported to be wary of going toe-to-toe with Bloomberg and his essentially limitless resources, tweeted the clip Tuesday morning, saying, "WOW, BLOOMBERG IS A TOTAL RACIST!"

Trump has waded into racial issues before — most notably on the Central Park Five and Charlottesville — and he also has vocally supported the stop-and-frisk policy, including a 2016 debate and as recently as 2018. He could say Bloomberg's description of the policy is crass, but it was widely known that the policy did pretty much what Bloomberg said it did, and Trump backed it.

This is the day Bloomberg's campaign had to know was coming, and the questions about it are thoroughly valid. Bloomberg finally disowned the stop-and-frisk policy when he began running for president, but he had previously defended it to the hilt. It's not unreasonable to consider this his biggest obstacle to the Democratic nomination, given the important role minority voters play after Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire.

The 2015 clip from a speech he gave at the Aspen Institute might be the starkest example. It isn't new — audio was released at the time by a reporter for The Aspen Times — but it is newly relevant. Here's what Bloomberg said:

"We want to spend a lot of money, put a lot of cops in the street, put those cops where the crime is, which is in the minority neighborhoods. So this is — one of the unintended consequences is, 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 the minority neighborhoods. Yes, that's true. Why do we do it? Because that's where all the crime is.

"And the first thing you can do for people is to stop them getting killed. Now we did a calculation of how many people who would have been dead if we hadn't brought down the murder rate and gotten guns off the streets. And the way you get the guns out of the kids' hands is to throw 'em against the wall and frisk 'em. And then they start — they say, 'I don't want to get caught,' so they don't bring the gun. They still have a gun, but they leave it at home."

Bloomberg said earlier: "It's controversial, but first thing is, all of your — 95% of your murders, murderers and murder victims, fit one M.O. You can just take the description, Xerox it and pass out to all the cops. They are male minorities, 15 to 25. That's true in New York. It's true in virtually every city. And that's where the real crime is. You've got to get the guns out of the hands of the people that are getting killed."

Bloomberg's team sought to prevent such audio from coming out of the speech by blocking recordings of it, according to The Aspen Times.

Bloomberg reversed himself on the eve of entering the 2020 race in November, telling a black megachurch, "I was wrong, and I'm sorry."

One of the problems for Bloomberg here is how thoroughly convenient the timing was of his personal evolution on this issue. Perhaps that's not unheard-of, but it practically slaps you in the face. The other big problem is how vocally he defended the policy. It's not a situation in which he simply continued one of his predecessor's policies and made the most of it; he repeatedly said it was the right thing to do.

As recently as January 2019, in a speech to the Naval Academy, Bloomberg responded to a question about how the policy targeted minorities: "We focused on keeping kids from going through the correctional system . . . kids who walked around looking like they might have a gun, remove the gun from their pockets and stop it."

He added that other police departments just didn't admit that they disproportionately wound up policing in minority communities.

"I think it's also true that most police departments around the world do the same thing; they just don't report it or use the terminology," he said.

That justification skips over the fact that the policy was controversial not just because of who it targeted but also the constitutionality of searching people who weren't accused of crimes. A judge struck it down in 2016 for that reason.

But that last quote betrays Bloomberg's biggest liability here. It's one thing for the policy to have the consequence of targeting minorities; it's another for him to acknowledge that's what it was doing and to say it was justified for that specific reason.

Bloomberg is relying heavily on a big showing on Super Tuesday, when several states with large black populations will vote. The same poll as above showed him rising to second place among black voters nationwide at 22%. If that held, it would be a major advantage for him.

But now he will actually have to defend his record in a way he hasn't to this point in the race. It's the moment we knew was coming, and now it's time to find out whether he's a real contender.

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