When Michael Bloomberg took to the lectern of a Brooklyn church Sunday morning, the billionaire apologized for the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk to racially profile millions and detain hundreds of thousands of black and Latino New Yorkers over his three terms as mayor.
“I now see that we could and should have acted sooner, and acted faster, to cut the stops,” he said. “I was wrong, and I’m sorry.”
Some police reformers heard the apology—his second in four days, after his campaign said of his documented history of “locker-room talk” that “Mike has come to see that some of what he has said is disrespectful and wrong”—as an important acknowledgment of the injustices committed against a generation of New Yorkers of color, while others heard an insincere act of political maneuvering.
For me, the most striking parts of the 11 minute-long apology was what was missing from it: the abuses of the Bloomberg-era NYPD that impacted Muslim, Arab, and South Asian New Yorkers.
No less than Donald Trump—who has praised stop-and-frisk policing as a candidate and as president—has spoken admiringly about Bloomberg’s approach to New York’s Muslims. In November of 2015, candidate Trump spoke wistfully about how “under the old regime we had tremendous surveillance going on in and around the Mosques of New York City.” Asked if he would shut down mosques in response to national security concerns, Trump’s answer was less than reassuring: “I would hate to do it, but it’s something you’re going to have to strongly consider, because of some of the ideas.” He ended his meandering remarks with a simple desire: “We have to bring back our intelligence agencies.”
Under Mayor Bloomberg, New York City endured some of the worst abuses of the post-9/11 backlash. In our collective grief and fear, New York City turned all too frequently to religious profiling and discrimination. Notoriously, the NYPD created a so-called Demographics Unit, a cadre of officers tasked with mapping where Muslim Americans lived. Developed in 2003 by CIA officer and NYPD official Lawrence Sanchez, the program sought to identify Muslim businesses, houses, and places of worship.
Plainclothes officers would go everywhere from local barbershops to cricket clubs, chatting up anyone who they profiled as Muslim. These so-called “rakers”, named for the metaphorical coals they raked over, simply profiled New Yorkers based on their race and religion. Other officers, so-called "mosque crawlers," would monitor sermons, even when there was no evidence of wrongdoing.
Yes, this boondoggle was discriminatory. Yes, it was invasive. But it was also a complete waste of money. In more than 10 years of prying into the private lives of Muslim New Yorkers, the unit never produced a single solid lead. Not one.
While the Demographics Unit—disbanded under Bloomberg’s successor—was an abject failure at protecting New Yorkers, it was effective at gathering information on immigrant communities. It’s hard to know just how many New Yorkers were stripped from their families because of information collected by NYPD officers during Bloomberg’s tenure. What we do know is that information-sharing agreements between the NYPD and federal agencies allowed information to flow to ICE, despite New York’s promise of being a sanctuary city.
The program’s psychological toll may have been greater still. Countless children and young adults were traumatized to be befriended by individuals they later realized were undercover officers. Many others pulled back from their religious life, fearful that going to the mosque might end in surveillance, or even worse. Many imams refrained from religious counseling, worried that seemingly sincere crises of faith might be a pretext, an effort to capture a damming, out-of-context remark. Parents faced the agonizing choice of whether to let their children join a Muslim student association and find a religious community, or whether it was too much of a risk. In short, Bloomberg oversaw one of the most chilling campaigns against religious liberty in modern American history.
As with stop-and-frisk, Bloomberg played the part of the ostrich when news of the Demographics Unit was first reported. He buried his head in the sand, pretending that investigations were not motivated by religion. Even after the AP blew the lid off the story in a Pulitzer Prize-winning probe, publishing NYPD documents that explicitly showed anti-Muslim profiling, Bloomberg maintained there was no bias.
Sadly, the impact of Bloomberg’s anti-Muslim surveillance was felt far beyond the five boroughs. Not only did the Demographics Unit look at Muslim communities far outside of New York, but the program itself drew anti-Muslim admirers from near and far.
In Trump’s executive orders banning immigrants and refugees from Muslim-majority countries, we see Bloomberg’s anti-Muslim policing policies given the force of the presidency. Perhaps Bloomberg would end the Muslim Ban if elected president. But if he’s unwilling to even apologize for his anti-Muslim policing, it’s hard to have much faith in him for the future.
Albert Fox Cahn (@FoxCahn) is the founder and executive director of The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (S.T.O.P.), a New York-based civil rights and privacy group and a fellow at the Engelberg Center for Innovation Law & Policy at N.Y.U. School of Law. His views are solely his own.