In what looks like the clearest sign yet of a run for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has taken a page from the book of the current frontrunner, Joe Biden. Earlier this year, Biden used a Martin Luther King Day speech at an event hosted by Al Sharpton to apologize for his role in both the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (better known as the Crime Bill) and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 (which established the now widely derided 100:1 sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine). Yesterday, addressing a predominantly black crowd at the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, Bloomberg apologized for the NYPD’s policing practices during his three-term mayoral tenure. “I was wrong,” Bloomberg said, “And I am sorry.”
Like Biden’s, Bloomberg’s act of contrition further confirms that the Democratic Party no longer can accommodate, at least at the presidential level, candidates who support fundamental aspects of the American criminal-justice system—a system now viewed on the left as wholly corrupt and irredeemably racist. The party’s presidential candidates have taken pains to cast themselves as criminal-justice reformers—but the reforms all go in the same direction. In addition to apologizing for policies they supported not long ago, some penned essays or made public statements decrying “mass incarceration.” Others released plans aimed at cutting prison rolls by as much as 50 percent. It’s not surprising, then, that Bloomberg—not yet an official candidate, but leaning that way—would denounce his own record so that he might pass one of the Democratic Party’s key ideological litmus tests.
That doesn’t make his doing so any less concerning. Bloomberg’s apology (again, like Biden’s) ignores the role that proactive policing played in driving down crime. By exercising their authority to initiate contacts with citizens—in some cases, by legally detaining, questioning, and, yes, frisking those whom they reasonably believed to be involved in crimes and armed—NYPD officers significantly deterred crime in the city’s most troubled precincts (which had large minority populations). This was the finding of a 2014 study, which addressed an important limitation in the earlier assessments of stop-and-frisk. Those assessments focused on citywide crime numbers, though many of the NYPD’s stops were concentrated in high-crime neighborhoods. With a more “microlevel” analysis, the 2014 study found that NYPD stops-and-frisks had significant, albeit “modest,” effects on crime.
If New York provides an example of how targeted police-citizen engagements can help fight crime, Chicago and Baltimore illustrate the potential pitfalls of drastically reducing such police activity. In 2016, monthly stops conducted by Chicago police officers declined dramatically, to somewhere between 20 percent and 25 percent of their historical average; that is, from more than 40,000 a month to less than 10,000. That year, homicides spiked nearly 60 percent. In an extraordinary study published in a recent edition of the Illinois Law Review, researchers Paul Cassell and Richard Fowles write: “Because of fewer stops in 2016, it appears that (conservatively calculating) approximately 245 additional victims were killed and 1,108 additional shootings occurred in that year alone. And these tremendous costs are not evenly distributed, but rather are concentrated among Chicago’s African-American and Hispanic communities.”
The decline in police activity in Baltimore is well documented and coincides with a significant uptick in Charm City’s violent crime. An in-depth report by USA Today showed that between 2014 and 2017, “suspected narcotics offenses” reported by police were down 30 percent. “The number of people [police] reported seeing with outstanding warrants dropped by half,” the paper reported, and “instances in which the police approach someone for questioning . . . dropped 70 percent.” What happened next was not hard to predict: shootings throughout the city spiked. It’s possible that other factors, such as Maryland’s rapid rate of decarceration, contributed to the crime spike; but the decrease in police activity definitely played a role.
These data have been essentially ignored by many critics of Bloomberg-era policing—a group that now apparently includes Bloomberg himself. They point to New York’s continued crime decline after 2014, when NYPD officers began sharply curtailing the number of reported stops and frisks. This argument sounds good on the surface, but it oversimplifies the situation in New York and the changes brought about in the city by the ongoing crime decline that started in the 1990s—changes that made the city less vulnerable to crime increases.
For starters, Gotham has fewer dangerous neighborhoods. In 2000, 13 of the city’s precincts saw 20 or more murders. By 2014, that number was down to one. Part of this was due to the dilution of the criminal population in the city’s once-troubled neighborhoods. Among the causes of that dilution: the extraction of criminal actors from those neighborhoods through incarceration, the inward migration of low-crime populations from within and outside New York City, and higher educational attainment in the city’s high-crime boroughs, leading to lower crime rates among younger residents. For example, in the Bronx—home to six of the 13 precincts with more than 20 murders in 2000—the percentage of the population age 25 and over without a high school diploma dropped from 37.7 percent in 2000 to 29.3 percent in 2015. These factors matter because low-crime populations don’t suddenly become high-crime populations when police back off. That the curtailment of investigatory stops in New York hasn’t caused the sky to fall doesn’t mean that conducting such stops is needless—especially in other cities.
Presidential candidates routinely walk back or adjust certain policy positions they have taken in the past, but Bloomberg’s apology for proactive policing sets a new (and dismal) standard, since his sterling record on crime-fighting is the hallmark of his three terms as mayor of New York. His renunciation of that record should remove any doubt about where the Democratic Party’s base stands on issues of criminal justice.
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