Bill Thompson, making his second run for mayor of New York City, recently made waves by comparing George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin to New York’s controversial stop-and-frisk police policy.
Thompson sat down with TheGrio to talk about racial profiling and policing.
theGrio: You’ve rarely talked openly about race in your public career. Why now?
Thompson: There were a few things that prompted me to do that, and to give the speech that I did. Number one is what occurred in Florida – the Zimmerman decision, which I was both frustrated and upset about. I also think the president and his comments inspired me to speak out. I thought it was courageous for him to speak out – to put things not just in the context of being president of the United States, but of being a black man.
In some ways, it’s more of a risk for you. President Obama is never going to run for office again, but you’re in the middle of a very tough campaign.
I think the comments I made were honest, and speak to people of good will, working together to try and change attitudes. I also pointed out that government, at times, aids in bad impression. I did talk about stop and frisk and how its misuse and abuse in the city of New York is almost institutionalized suspicion. And that is wrong.
You’re endorsed by several law enforcement unions, and you’re also expressing skepticism about stop and frisk. Is that causing tension, or confusion, among your supporters?
Not at all. The one thing I’ve been very clear about is that I want New York to stay a safe city, and in fact I want to increase the number of police officers by at least 2,000 and get us up to 37,000. We have to take the more experienced officers and put them in neighborhoods that have higher crime rates and bring to New York a new era of community policing, so that we have more officers on the ground, in the neighborhoods, working with people.
We have to bring in and implement high-point policing, which focuses on young people involved with drugs – it helps drive that down, as well as violence. Every community is entitled to safety. I’ve been very clear on that, and I think that’s one of the reasons the police unions have supported me, and say they believe I’m the best person to keep the city safe.
At the same point, I think the police unions share my opinion that the way stop and frisk has been used has been wrong. It has been misused and abused. People have been targeted and stopped because of who they are and what they look like. And that is wrong. I’ve tried to drive the point home that we can maintain and guarantee people safety in the city of New York and they shouldn’t have to give up their constitutional rights.
You’re also a close personal friend of the Rev. Al Sharpton, who endorsed you four years ago. Are the activists concerned about your ties to the police unions?
A: People understand that the next mayor has to be able to represent everyone. The police unions are part of New York. The one thing you hear from the activist community is that they want to make sure every neighborhood has adequate police protection. If anything, you’ve heard people like Rev. Sharpton and others talk about driving neighborhood gun violence down. They’ve gone out and said we need to stop this – there is no room in our neighborhoods for criminal activity, criminal behavior. We’re trying to drive that down – stop this rash of gun violence among our young people.
So in the activist community, there’s agreement that they want safe neighborhoods – and at the same point, they want to see stop and frisk not continue to be misused.
There was a suggestion in some editorials that by speaking about the Trayvon Martin case, you were playing to black voters. Is there any substance to that?
A: It is unfortunate some of things people said when the president spoke out. People took shots at him because he spoke from his heart. It’s important as a city, state and nation, that we take a look at ourselves and make sure we don’t add or aid negative perceptions. That’s the thing you want to be careful about.
As I talk to and about people in and out of government, citizens across the city, everybody wants the same thing. Everyone wants to be able to live in New York safely and have opportunity, to be able to bring their family up and live with rents they can afford, jobs that pay a decent salary and an education system that works. New Yorkers in so many ways want the same things, and I think all New Yorkers of good will want fairness and equity for everybody.
New York has had a black mayor and governor, and we’ve had a black president. Is it easier for you – or harder – to run without also trying to break a historical barrier?
Times change. Many people can look at me and say ‘Yup, he’s black.’ At the same point, they can look at my background and experience and say ‘You know something? He’s black, and he’s also the best qualified person to be mayor of New York City.’
It’s looking at my background as comptroller, with knowledge of the city’s finances; [as] former president of the Board of Education, with great familiarity of what needs to happen there. I’ve been able to lead and bring people together in consensus across the city for decades.
Is it a novelty to have a black mayor? No. But New Yorkers want the best qualified person, who’s going to work for all of us. I believe I’m that person.
Errol Louis is host of “Road to City Hall,” a politics show on NY1 News. You can follow him on Twitter @errollouis.