When former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched his unconventional White House bid, he faced his controversial criminal justice record head-on, expressing remorse for his longstanding support for "stop-and-frisk" policing -- a controversial tactic that was found to be racially discriminatory.
The billionaire presidential hopeful has made strategic efforts to explain why he once championed the highly-criticized policy, which disproportionately impacted blacks and Latinos -- part of a critical voting bloc for any Democrat looking to secure the presidential nomination.
With minorities now making up nearly a third of the overall electorate in 2020, his previous support for stop and frisk could prove to be a hurdle for Bloomberg as he asserts himself as an equality advocate who can galvanize a blue coalition of Democrats to defeat President Donald Trump in November.
“I was wrong and I’m sorry,” Bloomberg said to a predominantly black church in Brooklyn before announcing his late presidential run last November. He has then reiterated his regret to reporters, voters and community leaders during his campaign blitz through 2020’s battleground states.
His initial admission has been coupled with policy rollouts addressing criminal justice reform, gun violence, climate change, and economic equity -- promoted in partnership with prominent black leaders who are willing to vouch for his candidacy ahead of Super Tuesday.
“My sense is that folks are still listening. Although we're almost on the eve of Iowa caucuses and primaries, [voters are] still very open to his message but he's still introducing himself to a lot of voters,” said Steve Benjamin, mayor of Columbia, S.C, and co-chair of Bloomberg’s national campaign.
“I think it's important to look at the totality of his leadership and that's what he's been communicating to folks. And I think as it relates to criminal justice policy, the goal is to look forward. So, we're going to talk about exactly how 21st-century policing works to bring communities together,” Benjamin said, adding that the campaign has been actively pushing past negative perceptions by familiarizing voters with the successes of Bloomberg’s leadership.
“Of course, they may hear about stop and frisk either in the news, or on social media, but they also see the significant investments he's making in voter registration and fighting voter suppression, or they learn more about the young men's initiative, or what he did to actually reduce crime in New York,” Benjamin said.
Bloomberg, for his part, continues to face questions on his record.
His efforts hit a snag Monday night when a series of video and audio clips of the former mayor making controversial remarks about criminal justice emerged on social media -- less than a day after a new poll showed him gaining traction with African American voters.
"Ninety-five percent of your murders, murderers and murder victims fit one M.O.," Bloomberg is heard saying in one audio clip, reportedly recorded during a 2015 speech at the Aspen Institute. "You can just take the description, Xerox it and pass it out to all the cops. They are male, minorities, 16 to 25. That’s true in New York, that’s true in virtually every city. And that’s where the real crime is."
In another recording of unknown origin, Bloomberg is heard saying, "the way you get the guns out of the kids’ hands is to throw them up against the walls and frisk them."
According to the Aspen Times, Bloomberg later attempted to block footage of his 2015 Aspen Institute speech from being made public.
One critic called the remarks "devoid of humanity," but was not surprised to hear the words come out of Bloomberg’s mouth.
The resurfacing of those audio clips comes on the heels of a new poll that shows Bloomberg cutting into Joe Biden’s support among African American voters -- a demographic the former vice president has relied on to form the backbone of his constituency.
A nationwide Quinnipiac poll released Monday shows Bloomberg with 22% support from African Americans -- a 15-point boost from the same polling outfit two weeks earlier -- and within striking distance of Biden’s 27% support, down more than 20 points since late January.
In a statement released Tuesday in response to the video and audio clips, Bloomberg reiterated his apology for failing to address the impact of stop-and-frisk on minorities.
"I inherited the police practice of stop-and-frisk, and as part of our effort to stop gun violence it was overused," the statement read. "By the time I left office, I cut it back by 95%, but I should've done it faster and sooner. I regret that and I have apologized -- and I have taken responsibility for taking too long to understand the impact it had on Black and Latino communities."
On The View last month, ABC’s Sunny Hostin asked the presidential hopeful why he waited until he was about to run for president to apologize for supporting the New York Police Department’s discriminatory police practices, after standing by his record in January 2019 when he was asked about it during a Naval Academy conference.
“I apologized when enough people said to me ‘you were wrong’ and I thought about it and I wish I'd done it earlier. I just didn't,” Bloomberg told Hostin, adding that “In my heart of hearts, I tried to do things to make this country better.”
The campaign appears eager to close that chapter of Bloomberg's criminal justice record.
As recently as last month, his national campaign chairman, Michael Nutter, told MSNBC that the former mayor "has acknowledged that mistake and now wants to move forward."
However, his acknowledgment has netted mixed results with black voters.
In a recent Washington Post/Ipsos poll, Bloomberg was tied among black Democratic-leaning voters at 4% with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who is African American and had focused much of his campaign on highlighting issues impacting disenfranchised minority communities. Booker has since dropped out of the race.
Yet, in that same poll, the former New York City mayor netted the second-highest ranking, 17%, when Democratic-leaning black voters were asked which candidate they definitely would not consider voting for. Only Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard ranked higher at 23%.
Stockton, Calif., mayor and rising star Michael Tubbs, who is African American, stood by Bloomberg's side on Dec. 11 as the billionaire admitted that the New York City Police Department's policing tactics “got out of hand,” adding, “maybe I should have paid more attention.”
At the height of the New York Police Department's use of stop and frisk in 2011, 685,724 NYPD stops were recorded, according to data collected by the New York Civil Liberties Union. Of those who were stopped, 53% were black and 34% were Latino. Some 88% of the people who were stopped were innocent.
In the landmark Floyd vs. City of New York class action lawsuit, Judge Shira Scheindlin ruled in 2013 that stop and frisk violated constitutional rights through indirect racial profiling. The ruling called for immediate changes to the NYPD’s police practices and appointed independent monitoring to ensure compliance with the reforms ordered by the court.
Under Bloomberg’s mayoral tenure, New York City appealed the ruling. However, his successor, Mayor Bill de Blasio, withdrew that appeal in 2014 in favor of a joint resolution on moving forward.
As Bloomberg invests in voter outreach ahead of the primaries, he has focused on mending his record primarily in African American enclaves. He has not provided any formal apologies in Latino communities, though Latino residents in New York were also directly impacted by stop and frisk police tactics.
Regardless, acknowledgment of the policy’s impact is critical if he is to net vital support among minorities, political experts told ABC News.
“Questions about mass incarceration, criminal justice, and restorative justice are at the forefront of voters’ minds, even though they may not show up as the very first thing on polling,” said Leah Wright Rigueur, author and assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.
“There's an understanding ... every single candidate, particularly on the Democratic side, needs to have a position on mass incarceration that is in tune with the base of people in the party,” she continued, noting that the Democratic primary cannot be won without the support of black voters.
Tubbs, the mayor of Stockton, defended the presidential hopeful, telling reporters at a stop in his home state that while stop and frisk was “not a good policy, at least the mayor acknowledged it.”
“If you look at every candidate in the field, there's an issue with criminal justice. You have folks who wrote the 1994 crime bill which created mass incarceration ... but I think a leader is one who apologizes.”
Tubbs' arguments point to a larger challenge across the Democratic field: Several presidential candidates have imperfect records on criminal justice.
Former Vice President Joe Biden continues to face criticism over his drafting of the 1994 crime bill, a bipartisan measure signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. While the bill was intended to decrease crime, critics say it subsequently increased mass incarceration among black and Hispanic Americans. Biden has since apologized for that impact.
New York City resident Nicholas Peart said he isn't swayed by Bloomberg's turnaround.
The 31-year-old Harlem resident was a college student when he found himself at the center of the Floyd vs. New York City case. He provided witness testimony that sought to prove that NYPD officers conducted racially discriminatory stops against people of color.
During his testimony, Peart recounted the harrowing details of being held at gunpoint by an officer on his 18th birthday while celebrating with friends in Manhattan’s Upper West Side neighborhood.
He recalled incidents of being stopped while getting milk at his local grocery store, and another instance of being patted down after walking out of a gym. Peart, who was not charged with a crime on any of the occasions on which he was stopped, later shared the experience in a viral 2011 New York Times op-ed entitled, “Why is the NYPD After Me” -- a first-hand account of his growing up in New York during the Bloomberg era.
“One thing that no mayor wants is the reputation of violating someone's constitutional rights,” Peart told ABC News. “When you are in office, you're supposed to protect and serve, and that wasn’t honored. Even during the case, there was a lack of acknowledgment about the wrongdoing that was happening. There was this idea that if you continue to stop black and brown people, it will stop crime, which is completely racist.”
Bloomberg vehemently defended the policy, famously pushing back against critics during a weekly radio appearance in 2013 by refuting reports that stop and frisk was disproportionately affecting black and Latino residents the day after the city council required the NYPD to reduce the police tactic.
“I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little. It’s exactly the reverse of what they're saying. I don't know where they went to school, but they certainly didn't take a math course or a logic course,” Bloomberg said in defense of the practive. He received a barrage of criticism from New Yorkers who felt offended by his remarks.
“Michael Bloomberg had no sense of what everyday New Yorkers -- particularly New Yorkers of color, working people, and low-income people -- he had no sense of what their lives were like, because if he had any sense he would have ended the stop and frisk practices, or at least not so vociferously attacked the critics as he did literally for a decade,” said Darius Charney, a senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional rights who was the lead counsel in the Floyd vs. New York City case.
“I think he was completely disconnected from the lives of millions of New Yorkers and basically anyone outside the economic and political elite of the city,” he added.
Six years after Floyd vs. New York City, Peart questions the timing of Bloomberg's black voter outreach.
“I think he’s doing this now because of the change in the climate and people being aware of what was happening,” Peart said. “For him to run for president and he wasn't able to protect the rights of New York City residents, just imagine, some of the policies that will come if he was to become president. I can only imagine some of the things that he will let slide."
Benjamin says he’s confident the presidential hopeful can earn African American support, telling ABC News, “every vote is picked up one at a time.”
“He's expressed to me just some of the horrors he saw when the murder rate in New York was two times as it was before he left office," Benjamin said. "He really wanted to commit himself to taking guns off the street. He's acknowledged and apologized for what happened. But it's going to have to continue to be a part of the narrative, as he continues to sell himself to Americans.”
When asked what he would say to voters who called his outreach inauthentic and strategic, Bloomberg told ABC News in December, "All I can tell you is that I’ve probably worked harder since I left City Hall than before, in terms of taking on the NRA, in terms of running 'Every Town' (an anti-gun violence group), going across this country to stop crime, and unfortunately a lot of it is happening among young people. I'm very proud of what we are doing and we are going to keep doing it."
Rigueur, the Harvard professor, said that for Bloomberg to succeed it will be essential for him to overcome the challenges that loom over his push to build a diverse coalition.
“For Michael Bloomberg to jump into the race without offering some kind of mea culpa action and policy would be essentially a write-off,” Rigueur said. “It would be political suicide because there's no room for a punitive criminal justice vision or platform within the Democratic Party right now. So there is a lot of strategizing around what is the right way to apologize, how to reach these various audiences, and what is the kind of language you can use that takes accountability, but also side-steps the very real insidious nature that allowed these policies and procedure to move forward.”
While some voters like Peart are critical of Bloomberg’s criminal justice record, other voters may be willing to overlook it.
A Gallup survey from November found that 60% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents would prefer to see the party nominate the candidate with the best chance of beating President Donald Trump, even if that person does not share their views on key issues. For Ed Matthews, a 66-year-old African-American, defeating the president in November’s presidential election overrides past political transgressions.
After living in New York for 20 years before moving to Augusta, Georgia, Matthews told ABC News he’s excited that Bloomberg joined the race after seeing him in person at a campaign event.
“The other candidates that are out there right now, I’m just not juiced up. I can’t actually say I’d vote for them right now, but Mike Bloomberg, I would vote for him,” Matthews said.
Matthews recounted his life in New York, saying, “It wasn’t always a happy place” and that “race was a big issue.” He did admit that he was harassed by the police quite a few times during Bloomberg’s reign, but he noted that his experience was not exclusive to New York City.
“I got stopped and frisked in New York, I got stopped and frisked in Boston. It really doesn’t matter where you’re at, or what the policy may be. It’s just one of those things that happens. You’d go to the store and you’d have to be buzzed in as you approached the door. You didn’t feel like a regular customer that could just walk in,” Matthews recalled, adding that “it’s just a part of life as a black male.”
Nevertheless, Matthews said he accepts Bloomberg’s apology.
“As long as there’s an opportunity to judge based on color, I don’t think you can legislate that away. So, when it happened in New York, I understood it. I understand that the mayor just said, ‘Hey, I made a mistake’ and I can live with that.”