Seizing on the implosion of former congressman Anthony Weiner‘s campaign, mayoral hopeful William Thompson delivered a surprising and full-throated denunciation of New York’s “stop and frisk” crime fighting tactic Sunday, linking the polarizing police practice to the same kind of racial profiling that he said led George Zimmerman to shoot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.
Mr. Thompson’s impassioned public statement, delivered to a mostly black congregation at the Abundant Life Church in the Brooklyn borough of New York, was unusual for the cautious politician, who has previously taken more moderate stances on stop and frisk, a policy that allows city police to frisk people they think might be involved in serious crimes. Leaders of the city’s black community, meanwhile, have been outspoken critics.
In general, Thompson has avoided the heated topics of race, and that could partly explain his comparatively tepid support among black voters so far–a constituency Thompson needs in the upcoming Democratic primary. But Mr. Weiner’s troubles come as an opportunity for Thompson. Black voters had been the strongest supporters of Weiner, and the main reason the former congressman had surged to the top of the polls before last week’s reignited sexting scandal.
One reason for Weiner’s popularity among black voters, many have pointed out, was his outspoken criticism of stop and frisk, a policy Thompson has said he would continue, with modifications, if he were elected mayor. On Sunday, however, the former New York City comptroller, who is black, dialed up his rhetoric considerably.
“How did the system fail?” Thompson said. “Here in New York City, we have institutionalized Mr. Zimmerman’s suspicion with a policy that all but requires our police officers to treat young black and Latino men with suspicion, to stop them and frisk them because of the color of their skin. Six hundred thousand of them in 2011–more than 90 percent innocent–are profiled as Trayvon was profiled.”
So far, the responses to Thompson’s bold foray have been exactly what the candidate must have hoped. The Rev. Al Sharpton, president of National Action Network in New York and a critic of Thompson’s views on stop and frisk, said the candidate’s statement was finally “on point.”
In tone, Thompson’s speech was a remarkable departure from his previous views, which were among the more conservative “law and order” positions in the campaign.
He has pledged to keep stop and frisk as a crime-fighting tactic, promising only to curb its excesses. And he has also opposed two controversial measures passed recently by the New York City Council: one that creates an independent inspector general to monitor the New York Police Department, and another that allows people to sue the department if they believe they have been illegally profiled by race.
On Monday, he clarified his position on stop and frisk, saying he still supports the law but wants to “make sure that government doesn’t institutionalize suspicion.”
“I would say that my position on stop-and-frisk still is the same,” Thompson said at a campaign event in front of City Hall. “It is the continual concern that I think I have said for not even months, but for years, that stop-and-frisk, while a useful policing tool, it has been misused and abused.”