How Bloomberg Can Get Beyond Stop-and-Frisk

michael bloomberg

Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Courtesy official 2020 campaign website.

Life doesn’t offer politicians many chances to do the right thing— and profit from it.

But the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary indicate that former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg may have just that opportunity.

Iowa and New Hampshire showed that the Sanders/Warren progressive wing of the party won’t run away with the vote.

Rivals in the centrist cohort that Bloomberg hopes to lead are in trouble too.

Joe Biden’s campaign is flat-lining.  Amy Klobuchar’s flashes have come at the expense of Mayor Pete.   Mayor Pete, meanwhile, still looks too much like a small town wunderkind to quiet the fears of anxious voters.

Bloomberg, on the other hand, has been around. No one thinks running New York is easy.  “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere” will do for a slogan. Whatever slogan Bloomberg chooses, he will have the money to drive it home. He has an opening.

The Scars From Stop and Frisk

But Bloomberg made, then stubbornly sustained (against strong and articulate opposition) a commitment to an aggressive stop and frisk program that for years victimized minority communities which provide indispensable Democratic votes.

Bloomberg has apologized.  That won’t be enough.  Tinkering with the numbers (“We rousted five million people; two million would have been enough; maybe even one million.”) won’t work either.

No African American or Latino will (or should) accept that.  New York’s stop and frisk regime combined a startling lack of human empathy for its minority citizens with sturdy bureaucratic indifference to tracking its own futility.   It haunted the neighborhoods.

But, ironically, it is because Bloomberg saw the conventional wisdom about fighting crime blow up in his face that he is in a unique position to do well by doing some good.

Of all the candidates, Bloomberg is best placed to lead a pivot from sterile arguments over Crime Control versus Due Process toward  a radical re-orientation aimed at Safety—Safety for everyone:  citizens, cops, victims, families, and communities.

Stop and frisk wasn’t a glitch; it was a train wreck, and after a train wreck you mobilize the National Transportation Safety Board, and you learn how and why the disaster happened and what you can do to avoid having it happen again.

What Bloomberg could do now—what he really has to do unless voters let him off the hook—is to confront the roots of his policy.  He not only has to admit that he was wrong; he has to show that he understands how he made this cataclysmic mistake.

He zigged when he should have zagged.  Has he learned why? Did he try to?

One response to these questions is,  “Who cares? This creep was all for throwing minority kids against walls.  Now, we can punish him for it. Let it go at that.”

Fair enough.  I’m not a Bloomberg fan.  And, generally speaking, I’m not optimistic about the reform and redemption of individual billionaires.

But I do want to pause for a minute and remember that Bloomberg’s stop and frisk policies don’t really mark him as a uniquely depraved outlier.  Things are worse than that.

Can Learning Matter?

The fact is, Bloomberg’s choices reflected an indefensible but “normal” vision of American civic life so saturating that it is difficult to see.

At least it is difficult to see unless you and your kids live in an affected neighborhood,  or you’ve had the advantage I’ve had from 50 years of working to defend indigents in urban criminal courts.

When you live in those neighborhoods, or defend for a living, the pervasive American understanding of the crime problem as one of a mysterious and intrinsically different Them in a distant and exotic There slaps you in the face on your first day, and keeps slapping you all day, every day,  from then on.

What we confront here is a broad national agreement to treat our inner cities as Hearts of Darkness and their residents as full-time predators and full time prey.

We’ve incorporated into our own treatment of our neighbors the colonialists’ utilitarian doctrines of order-keeping in the Third World.

Bloomberg is just one artifact of this deep consensus.  Only his money, his energy, (well, perhaps his smugness, too) are exceptional. Exorcising Bloomberg only gets us so far.

Today, a contemporary bipartisan consensus has declared itself against Mass Incarceration.  Tomorrow,  unless we change our fundamental worldview, our prison census count will inevitably drift back to its extraordinary levels.

How can we disenthrall ourselves and shed the colonialist vision?

If Bloomberg leads this inquiry instead of waiting around to be battered with it, he can call for a new paradigm and renounce the ideological tug-of-war that has saturated our public discourse for 50 years.

He could help us to turn, at last, toward a Safety Model in criminal justice.  That’s what we can demand.  He can say “Yes”, or he can say “No.”

What Correction Could Bloomberg Make?

As the late Harvard law professor, William Stuntz, pointed out, in criminal justice, “Neither side of this divide is ‘them’. Both sides are us.”

Bloomberg could explicitly repudiate the idea that criminal justice is a matter of controlling Them/There.

He can show that we need a justice system that protects radiating circles of vulnerable people from harm.

And if Bloomberg genuinely wants to hold himself accountable he can state plainly the need to recognize the iatrogenic and inter-generational traumas inflicted by anti-crime  “treatments” such as stop and frisk, profligate distribution of arrest records, pretrial detention, and crippling fees and fines as disasters.

He can admit that treating transitory conditions with amputations can be worse than not treating them at all.

Bloomberg as a former mayor is also in a position to explain that no silver bullet can transform the overall picture—that, in fact, it might do more harm than good.

Safety is an emergent quality no one can see in a single criminal justice policy or actor any more than you can see “wetness” in a single molecule of H20.

When, as in Camden, NJ, 67 percent of the emergency room patients are also cycling through the criminal courts every year, it is obvious that public health, law enforcement, courts, corrections, and housing officials are all dependent on each other.  Employment, homelessness, mental illness, and education play key roles. Addiction treatment, too.

Taking the “Safety” in Public Safety seriously can reboot this system.

Presidential leadership that won’t settle for tweaks and sound bites— that insists on moving on from a failed orientation—can help everyone involved see his or her individual   responsibility for just collective outcomes.

james doyle

James Doyle

Bloomberg has a lot of trauma to make up for:  trauma that he can’t erase.  But—whether he deserves them or not—he also has some tools that can help us start to do some degree of healing.

Yes, apologize. Don’t say, “I’m sorry this happened to you”; say “I’m sorry I did this to you.”  Then say, “I don’t want to do it again.” Mean it.  Then, prove it—lead.

Good for us, good for you.

James M. Doyle is a Boston defense lawyer and author, and a frequent contributor to The Crime Report. He welcomes readers’ comments.

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