Michael Bloomberg on Sunday apologized for his longstanding support of the controversial “stop-and-frisk” police strategy ahead of a potential Democratic presidential run, a practice that he embraced as New York’s mayor and continued to defend despite its disproportionate impact on people of color.
Addressing a black church in Brooklyn, Bloomberg said he was “sorry” and acknowledged it often led to the detention of blacks and Latinos.
“I can’t change history,” Bloomberg told the congregation. “However today, I want you to know that I realize back then I was wrong.”
Bloomberg’s reversal is notable for someone who is often reluctant to admit wrongdoing. It’s also a recognition that if he’s to compete for the Democratic presidential nomination, he’ll have to win support from black voters. And his record on stop-and-frisk is a glaring vulnerability that could hobble his potential candidacy if he doesn’t express contrition.
The apology, however, was received skeptically by many prominent activists who noted that it was made as he is taking steps to enter the race.
“It is convenient that Bloomberg suddenly apologizes but has done nothing to undo the immense damage he has caused on countless lives,” said activist DeRay Mckesson. “His apology is not accepted.”
RELATED: Bloomberg through the years
Michael Bloomberg through the years
Michael Bloomberg through the years
344913 02: Bloomberg L.P. founder and CEO Michael Bloomberg poses for a portrait November 2, 1998 in the training room at his offices in New York City. (Photo by Chris Casaburi/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 2000: Republican mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg samples a slice of life at Francesco's Pizzeria on Third Ave. in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. (Photo by Linda Rosier/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 2000: Republican mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg talks to passersby while campaigning at Broadway and W. 225th St. (Photo by David Handschuh/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 2001: Republican mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg exchanges high-fives with 7-year-old Matthew DePoalo while campaigning on Ditmars Blvd. in Astoria. (Photo by Andrew Savulich/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
388464 18: Michael Bloomberg of Bloomberg News Service hosts a party before attending the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, April 28, 2001 in Washington DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Newsmakers)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: Michael Bloomberg, Republican candidate for New York mayor, speaks to the press in Brooklyn, New York, 26 September 2001. Bloomberg handsomely won the 25 September New York mayoral primary election to be the official Republican party candidate to replace New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani on January 1 next year, according to exit polls. AFP PHOTO Doug KANTER (Photo credit should read DOUG KANTER/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 26: Republican mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg meets with the Daily News editorial board. (Photo by Pat Carroll/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg leaves the polling booth at PS 6 in Manhattan, NY. (Photo by Jennifer S. Altman/WireImage)
399131 02: Michael Bloomberg, the108th Mayor of the City of New York, gives his inaugural address January 1, 2002 at City Hall in New York City. (Photo by Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - CIRCA 2002: Mayor Michael Bloomberg chats with diners at the International House of Pancakes at 135th St. and Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. in Harlem, where he picked up the endorsement of the Rev. Calvin Butts. (Photo by Craig Warga/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (C), and former New York Stock Exchange President William Johnston (R) listens to New York Stock Exchange Chairman Richard Grasso (R) on the bell podium before Bloomberg rang the opening bell to begin trading 02 January, 2002. AFP PHOTO Henny Ray ABRAMS (Photo credit should read HENNY RAY ABRAMS/AFP/Getty Images)
399944 03: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at the swearing in of over 300 probationary firefighters January 22, 2002 at the Fire Academy on Randalls Island in New York City. The new class is the second to enter the academy since the World Trade Center attack, when the department lost 343 firefighters. The probationary firefighters will begin physical training and classroom instruction before being sent out to firehouses around the city., (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JANUARY 30: Mayor Michael Bloomberg makes his first State of the City address in the City Council chamber at City Hall. (Photo by Linda Rosier/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
Mayor Michael Bloomberg cuts the ribbon to begin the opening of fall's Fashion Week in Bryant Park in Manhattan, NY. (Photo by Jennifer S. Altman/WireImage)
UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 09: Mayor Michael Bloomberg stands amidst fire officials during funeral of Fire Lt. Kevin Pfeifer at St. Margaret's Church in Middle Village, Queens. Pfeifer, 42, who worked with Engine Co. 33 in lower Manhattan, was killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. Bloomberg, attending his first firefighter funeral since taking office last month, eulogized the fallen hero and praised the bravery of all the firefighters who responded to the attacks. (Photo by Mike Albans/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
401921 01: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at the unveiling of a fifty-foot high stainless steel tree by artist Roxy Paine March 5, 2002 in New York City's Central Park. The tree is one of five public artworks on display in Central Park sponsored by the Whitney Museum of American Art. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg(L) and Attorney General John Ashcroft (R) look at memorial banners and posters in front of St. Paul's Chapel 09 April 2002 in New York City, before visiting ground zero at the site of the World Trade Center attacks. AFP PHOTO/POOL/Kathy WILLENS (Photo credit should read KATHY WILLENS/AFP/Getty Images)
403191 02: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (C) and Fire Commissioner Nicholas Scoppetta (R) look on as a U.S. flag that once flew over Ground Zero is raised during a ceremony at City Hall Plaza April 1, 2002 in New York City. The flag was immortalized in a photograph by Thomas Franklin of three firefighters raising it amid the rubble of the World Trade Center after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on New York City. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - MAY 28: Mayor Michael Bloomberg addresses the Republican State Convention at the Sheraton New York Hotel on Seventh Ave. (Photo by Andrew Savulich/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
NEW YORK - JUNE 14: National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) astronauts Dominic Gorie (L) and Frank Culbertson (R) present an American flag to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (C) in honor of Flag Day June 14, 2002 in New York City. The flag was found at Ground Zero, the location of the World Trade Center in New York, and was flown into space in December 2001 aboard the NASA Space Shuttle Endeavor. Culbertson was onboard the International Space Station September 11, 2001 when the terrorist attacks occurred in the U.S. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW YORK - JULY 4: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg gets a Nathan's Famous hot dog after Takeru Kobayashi won Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island July 4, 2002 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Kobayashi, who won last year, set a new world record by eating 50 1/2 hot dogs in twelve minutes. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 10: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (2nd R) speaks with an aide while announcing a new emergency notification system at a news conference overlooking Ground Zero on May 10, 2011 in New York City. Bloomberg, who was joined by politicians, federal officials and the heads of mobile phone companies, spoke of the system that will alert what to do in case of emergency to anyone with an 'enabled' mobile device within range of a cell phone tower. Part of a law passed by Congress five years ago, the service is scheduled to be available in New York City and Washington, D.C. by the end of the year and is expected in the rest of the country by mid-2012. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 07: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R) speaks at a press conference as construction continues at the World Trade Center site on September 7, 2011 in New York City. The National September 11 Memorial & Museum will feature two reflecting pools on the footprints of the twin towers. The memorial is scheduled to be dedicated on September 11, 2011, the tenth anniversary of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 02: (L-R) Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel participate in a forum about education in big cities at the Katzen Arts Center on the campus of American University March 2, 2012 in Washington, DC. Calling their municipalities 'city-states,' the mayors suppored the idea of individual school districts being able to compete with states for the $4.35 billion 'Race to the Top' grant program created by President Barack Obama. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 31: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (C) rings the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange on the first day of opening since Hurricane Sandy October 31, 2012 in New York City. The storm has claimed several dozen lives in the United States and has caused massive flooding across much of the Atlantic seaboard. U.S. President Barack Obama has declared the situation a 'major disaster' for large areas of the U.S. east coast, including New York City, with widespread power outages and significant flooding in parts of lower Manhattan and elsewhere. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 12: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg holds a large cup as he speaks to the media about the health impacts of sugar at Lucky's restaurant, which voluntarily adopted the large sugary drink ban, March 12, 2013 in New York City. A state judge on Monday blocked Bloomberg's ban on oversized sugary drinks but the Mayor plans to appeal the decision. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 06: New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio speaks with outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg at City Hall on November 6, 2013 in New York City. It was the first meeting between the two since de Blasio's election victory the day before. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 19: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg speaks at a press conference with United States Secretary for Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan (not seen), unveiling a Hurricane Sandy Recovery Report on August 19, 2013 in the Greenpoint neighborhood of the Brooklyn Borough of New York City. The report calls for strengthening the region's electrical grid, reinforcing coastline and protecting gas supplies. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
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Stop-and-frisk gave police wide authority to detain people they suspected of committing a crime, and Bloomberg aggressively pursued the tactic when he first took over as mayor in 2002. Under the program, New York City police officers made it a routine practice to stop and search multitudes of mostly black and Hispanic men to see if they were carrying weapons.
Police claimed that people were only targeted if officers had a reasonable suspicion that they were breaking the law. But while the searches did lead to weapons being confiscated, the overwhelming majority of people who were detained and frisked were let go because they hadn’t done anything wrong.
Many men found the encounters humiliating and degrading, and statistics showed that minorities were far more likely to be subjected to such a search.
“Under Bloomberg, NYPD increased stop and frisk from 100,000 stops to nearly 700,000 stops per year. 90% of those impacted were people of color — overwhelmingly black and brown men,” black activist and data scientist Samuel Sinyangwe tweeted on Sunday. “Bloomberg personally has the money to begin paying reparations for this harm. ‘Sorry’ isn’t enough.”
Bloomberg is not the first Democrat aiming to unseat President Donald Trump next year who has sought to atone for past positions on matters that deeply impacted people of color.
Before he entered the race, former Vice President Joe Biden apologized for his role in the passage of a crime bill that imposed stiffer sentences on those convicted of crack cocaine possession — a law that has disproportionately affected the black community. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, too, said he was “not happy” that he voted for the “terrible” 1994 legislation. And Pete Buttigieg apologized for his handling of race as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, a city with a history of segregation where decades of simmering tension erupted this summer when a white police officer shot and killed a black man.
Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor who just entered the Democratic race and was campaigning Sunday in Nevada, was asked for his reaction to Bloomberg’s apology. He replied, “Good.”
Sen. Cory Booker, who was at the same Nevada rally, had a similarly positive but brief reaction to Bloomberg’s reversal on stop and frisk, saying, “I’m happy he did.” Julian Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary and presidential candidate, said: “It’s interesting timing that the mayor would apologize for that now. That was a wrong policy. I guess it’s better late than never. People will have to judge whether they believe his apology.”
Rev. Al Sharpton applauded Bloomberg for reversing his stance, though he added that he would have to “wait and see whether it was politically motivated.”
“As one who helped lead countless demonstrations, marches and rallies to amplify the racial impact that was had on the Black and Brown community from stop-and-frisk policing, I am glad to see Mr. Bloomberg now admit that the policy was wrong,” Sharpton said. “It will take more than one speech for people to forgive and forget a policy that so negatively impacted entire communities.”
On Sunday, Bloomberg sought to contextualize his embrace of stop-and-frisk. Though crime had fallen sharply when he took office, he said there were still 650 murders in the city in 2001. Most were young black and Hispanic men. Meanwhile, relations between police and communities of color were at a nadir.
“I was not going to accept that — and I didn’t,” Bloomberg said. “I was determined to improve police-community relations while at the same time reducing crime even further.”
But the practice had unforeseen consequences, he acknowledged.
“The fact is, far too many innocent people were being stopped while we tried to do that. The overwhelming majority of them were black and Latino,” he said. “That may have included, I’m sorry to say, some of you here today. Perhaps yourself or your children, or your grandchildren, or your neighbors, or your relatives.”
Yet as recent as this year, he defended his handling of it.
“The murder rate in New York City went from 650 a year to 300 a year when I left," he said in January. He said most police departments do the same thing, “they just don't report it or use the terminology.”
Ultimately, a federal judge found in 2013 that stop-and-frisk intentionally and systematically violated the civil rights of tens of thousands of people by wrongly targeting black and Hispanic men. Bloomberg blasted the ruling at the time, calling it a “dangerous decision made by a judge who I think does not understand how policing works and what is compliant with the U.S. Constitution.”
Bloomberg’s successor, Mayor Bill de Blasio made ending the practice a centerpiece of his first run for office. In a campaign-defining ad, his son Dante, who is biracial, made the case that de Blasio “would end the stop-and-frisk era that unfairly targets people of color.”
Bloomberg told the congregation Sunday that stop-and-frisk eroded trust in the police department and left a blight on his legacy.
“The erosion of trust bothered me — deeply. And it still bothers me,” he said. “And I want to earn it back.”