Bloomberg on “Stop and Frisk”: (Part 2 of 2)

I wrote this post back when Michael Bloomberg was still a presidential candidate. He dropped out of the presidential race on March 4. Soon after that, the pandemic struck. Consumed in the latter issue, I forgot that I’d written the second half of my “Bloomberg on Stop and Frisk” series. In some ways it’s dated, but in other ways not, so for whatever it’s worth, I’ve decided to run it now, six months after the fact. Sue me. 

In my last post on this topic, I distinguished between two different senses of “stop and frisk,” ordinary and Bloombergian, and argued that the distinction between them matters to our assessment of Michael Bloomberg as presidential candidate. On the one hand, it makes no sense to attack Bloomberg for his support of ordinary stop and frisk. To attack ordinary stop-and-frisk is to attack police work as such. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense to attack him for the specific version of it that prevailed when he was mayor of New York City. To attack Bloombergian stop and frisk is to attack a perversion of the real thing.

Failure to get straight on this distinction leads to pointless, confused outrage of the sort that seems to motivate this news item (and many like it).

“A stunning admission from a man who wants to be New York City’s next mayor.” JFC. It’s not a “stunning admission”–at least by Adams. If anything, it’s a stunning, unintended admission by CBS News: that they have no idea how ordinary stops, detentions, and arrests work, or what differentiates them from Bloombergian stops and frisks.

With reporting of this caliber, it’s no wonder that the public is as uneducated as it is about policing, and as unprepared for real-life dealings with the police as most people are. If someone was knifing you in public, and a bystander called the police to make it stop, would you be offended that the police showed up, physically restrained the suspect, and frisked him? Would it really matter whether your attacker was black or white, male or female, documented or undocumented? Having once witnessed a knife attack myself (white male on white female, if you want to know), I can assure you that none of that matters. What matters is what happens to the knife. What, after all, is the alternative to stop and frisk under such circumstances? A stiff talking-to? A time-out? A snarky text message? The only people demanding the wholesale abolition of stop and frisk are people whose lives are so distant from physical danger as to make their opinions irrelevant to the issue.

With the ordinary/Bloombergian distinction in hand, let’s assume that Bloombergian stop and frisk was (or is) as unjust as it’s widely thought to be: racist, brutal, deceptive, gratuitous, unconstitutional, and illegal. Still, the question might reasonably arise: what implications does that have for Michael Bloomberg as presidential candidate? How does a single issue nullify an entire candidacy? Granted, some of Bloomberg’s opponents are opposed to more about Bloomberg than just his stop and frisk policy. Fair enough. But it’s still a useful exercise to ask whether stop and frisk could by itself suffice to derail Bloomberg’s candidacy. Put it this way: once completed, the inquiry is usefully diagnostic. If stop and frisk suffices as an objection to Bloomberg, stop and frisk is all you need, and stop and frisk is where the anti-Bloomberg action should relentlessly focus. If it doesn’t suffice, you can’t fool yourself into thinking that once you use stop and frisk against Bloomberg, you’re done. You need more.

Here’s a standard-issue case for Bloomberg. Let’s suppose for argument’s sake that all or most of that case is true: Bloomberg is a great manager, he fixed the schools, he created jobs, etc. etc. As a purely conceptual matter, what kind of argument would you need to sink all of that by way of an attack on Bloombergian stop and frisk?

A first thing to realize is that the issue is not self-evident either way. A defense of Bloomberg is certainly possible, and might go as follows: For one thing, stop and frisk policy is now in the past, arguably the distant past. For another, Bloomberg has apologized for it. Beyond that, it’s just one policy from a set of policies he enacted as mayor, and arguably, it had some positive consequences: it drove the crime rate down. Bloomberg’s defenders will argue that you can’t sink a whole candidacy on the basis of a single past mistake when the mistake wasn’t culpable, has now been repudiated and apologized-for, has to be balanced against other great accomplishments, and wasn’t all bad. I mean, if Bernie can praise Cuban literacy, why can’t Bloomberg praise Bloombergian crime reductions? Let’s be fair.*

A one-issue critic of Bloomberg would have to argue that stop and frisk was in fact bad enough to be a deal-breaker on its own. In overarching form, the argument would have to go as follows. For one thing, Bloombergian stop and frisk isn’t that far in the past. Indeed, though not official policy, it remains an ongoing practice within the NYPD. Yes, Bloomberg apologized for it, but he spent his mayoralty lying about it when it was in place. So as far as Bloomberg is concerned, today’s apology is no more credible than yesterday’s extended, truculent bullshit artistry. It follows that Bloomberg’s “mistake” was no mistake at all: it was a culpable attempt to deceive the public, repudiated only out of an ad hoc sense of political expediency because Sanders became the front runner, and Bloomberg decided to step in and become the Democrats’ centrist savior. Finally, once you really sit down and really do the math and inductive logic, the “positive outcome” of Bloomberg’s crime-rate reduction is a mirage. And once you really come to terms with how brutally immoral the policy was, it nullifies the value of Bloomberg’s other so-called achievements–assuming (what is dubious) that they were achievements.

Does the policy disqualify Bloomberg’s presidential candidacy simply because it took place in the past, regardless of whether it might take place during his would-be presidency? Or does it disqualify because the past is a guide to the future? Call the first approach retrospective, and the second prospective.

A retrospective approach treats past behavior as disqualifying regardless of its impact on the future. A prospective approach treats past behavior as disqualifying only insofar as it can be predicted to have an impact on the future. It may be possible to combine these approaches, but they’re obviously not the same, and it’s worth getting clear on the distinction between them.

Retrospective approaches. As I see it, retrospective approaches come in four basic subvarieties: punitive, reparative, character-based, and as motivated by a desire for clean hands.

  • A punitive approach seeks to punish the offender in the retributive sense for his past injustice. On this view, we vote against Bloomberg in order to cause him the pain of defeat.
  • A reparative approach seeks to compensate the victims for the past injustice of the offender. On this view, we vote against Bloomberg to deny him the ill-gotten goods of his injustice.
  • A character-based approach infers that the past bad behavior implies bad character on the part of the candidate. Understood in this way, we vote against Bloomberg because his moral character is unworthy of the presidency.**
  • A clean hands approach suggests that we not abet evil or evil-doers. This approach suggests that we vote against Bloomberg to keep our hands clean of involvement with him.

Personally, I would reject the punitive approach; I don’t think retributive punishment makes sense. Any combination of the reparative, character-based, and clean hands approaches (or any one of them individually) seems coherent, and seems a legitimate reason to vote against Bloomberg. I made a case for the reparative approach against Bloomberg here a few months ago.

But I wonder how conclusive this approach is. Retrospective reasons certainly strike me as legitimate reasons to consider in voting, but they vary in strength along at least three dimensions: the severity of the past offense, the other available options, and prospective reasons. One candidate’s having a venial offense in his past won’t count as conclusive in a context where others have done the same or worse things and/or where that candidate credibly promises great things in the future that others don’t. It will if the candidate has done something genuinely evil, relatively sui generis, and promises nothing great for the future.

In Bloomberg’s case, retrospective reasons will only be conclusive if stop and frisk was so bad that it fell beneath a threshold of decency, was worse than just about anything any other candidate did, and if we assume that a Bloomberg presidency will bring us nothing of great value anyway. In that case, the badness of stop and frisk faces no normative competitors, in which case it prevails by disqualifying Bloomberg all by itself. I don’t dispute that such a case could be made. It’s just good to know what’s involved in making it.

Prospective approaches. Prospective approaches imply that Bloomberg’s past behavior as mayor predicts his future would-be behavior as president. As far as I can see, there’s really only one version involved here. It says that Bloomberg’s past behavior is a proxy for what he might do in the future; if the past behavior was bad, the future behavior will follow suit. Notice that an approach of this sort has to filter out the retrospective reasons; logically speaking, insofar as you take a prospective perspective, retrospective reasons become irrelevant. On this view, the past isn’t relevant for its own sake; it’s relevant insofar as it predicts the future.

What’s tricky here is exactly how the proxy inference is supposed to work. Bloomberg is a former mayor who wants to become president. He enacted stop and frisk as a municipal officer in charge of the New York Police Department. Assuming that stop and frisk was bad, can we infer that a mayor who did that is likely to enact something equally bad as president? And what, exactly, qualifies as the analogue for enacting stop and frisk as president?

In one sense, the answer is that nothing does: there is no analogue at the presidential level of enacting stop and frisk at the mayoral level. But in another sense, the answer is that everything does: a person who enacted a racist, brutal, deceptive, gratuitous, unconstitutional, and illegal policy as mayor is likely to enact racist, brutal, deceptive, gratuitous, unconstitutional, and illegal policies as president. Put another way: the risks are sufficient that we shouldn’t want him as president.

This strikes me as a fairly sound inference, but it’s a political, not a scientific one. What I mean is that you can ransack the social scientific literature in search of “the social scientific data” that secures the relevant inference, and never find it. There are precious few studies out there asking whether “Mayors of large cities who are elected president tend, at the presidential level, to enact analogues of the policies that they enacted at the mayoral.” The reason is obvious. The number of mayors who have recently been elected president is too low to merit scientific study. If so, even the most judicious, scientifically conscientious and literate voter is left to draw a specifically political inference, guided more or less by what Aristotle called eubolia, or good judgment: Given what you know about people and about politics, does a Bloomberg-type person inspire trust? Would you trust such a person with the presidency?

I wouldn’t. Granted, if we were back in Weimar Germany in 1932, and the election pitted the Bloomberg Party against the Nazis, I guess I’d be forced to say that Hitler was less trustworthy than Michael Bloomberg, and vote for the latter. But while I see an incipient fascism in Donald Trump and the Republicans, I can’t manage to see the Bloomberg/Trump choice as being on par with a Bloomberg/Hitler one. Trump is too far from Hitler, and Bloomberg is too close to Trump, to merit that comparison. Or so it seems to me. I suppose I could be persuaded otherwise. But for now, I don’t see a huge difference between the guy who stopped and frisked thousands of people for nothing, and the guy who claimed that he’d execute the Central Park Five if he could. People like that deserve each other. But that doesn’t mean we deserve them.

*I find it interesting, incidentally, that the anti-Bloomberg and anti-Bernie people are employing the same rhetorical tactic against one another without seeing that it is the same tactic. The Bloombergian centrists hold Bernie’s praise for Cuban literacy against him because Fidel Castro’s Cuba was a police state, and in praising Cuban literacy, Bernie was clearly rationalizing a communist police state. Meanwhile, Berniefied leftists hold stop-and-frisk against Bloomberg tout court, because Bloomberg is a neo-liberal corporate tool, and his New York was a brutal racist hellhole; in praising Bloomberg for anything, one becomes complicitous in neo-liberal racism. I don’t agree with either way of looking at things, but it would take a separate post to explain myself.

**In re-reading this post months later, it occurs to me that my putting “character-based voting” under “retrospective approaches” might give the false impression that I regard character-based voting as belonging only in that category. But as I see it, character-based voting can in principle be retrospective or prospective. What I meant in the post was that there is a rationale for character-based voting such that that particular rationale is retrospective. There are other rationales such that those ones are prospective.

Three related posts on Bloomberg and stop and frisk:

Thanks to Tom Palmer for a productive disagreement on this topic. Thanks also to Alison Conigliaro-Hubbard, whose pro-Bloomberg Facebook posts haven’t convinced me, but have given me plenty to think about.



One thought on “Bloomberg on “Stop and Frisk”: (Part 2 of 2)

  1. Pingback: Mask Up or Drop Dead | Policy of Truth

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