Citing strong public confidence in the city’s future, the city’s former comptroller, William C. Thompson, Jr., says it’s time for new ideas in policing that will keep crime down while easing tensions between cops and minority communities.
In a wide-ranging interview with Jewish Week staff last week, Thompson discussed his nuanced view of the controversial NYPD stop-and-frisk policy that has become perhaps the city’s foremost public policy issue.
With the Democratic field for mayor increasingly fluid, Thompson has tried to take a middle-of-the-road approach to the topic to hold on to his current base and perhaps gain some ground.
“We are not going to go backwards on crime,” Thompson vowed at two separate junctures in the interview. He added, “Tourism has gone up in neighborhoods that people years ago considered tough neighborhoods, like where I grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Harlem is now one of the hottest restaurant neighborhoods in the city.”
Most major candidates for mayor are critical of the Bloomberg administration’s current street-stop policies but only John Liu, the current comptroller, has pledged to abolish the practice.
Thompson, who has the endorsement of a coalition of law enforcement unions representing 120,000 members, the United Uniformed Workers of New York, said he wants to see more emphasis on community policing that would increase cooperation between cops and community leaders, believing that random street stops in heavily minority communities, overwhelmingly affecting innocent people, alienate cops from the communities they serve.
He would end the practice of assigning rookies to the city’s highest-crime precincts and also get more cops out from behind desks and increase the ranks by 2,000 officers over several years to make up for recent attrition.
Stop and frisk, he said should be linked only to specific calls based on a description of suspects. “It is a policing tool that has not been used correctly now,” he said. “If a call comes out looking for a person who matches X, Y and Z description … You should stop that individual.”
Adding more veteran cops to the neighborhoods with the highest crime, he said, would reduce the need to rely on random stops. “Working with residents, who are also on the ground, you know who to stop. This is a policing tool that has been used and misused by the current administration. In 2011 you have 700,000 people who said they were stopped and frisked, and 90 percent were black and Hispanic who were stopped because of who they were and what they look like.”
Thompson, who unlike his two chief rivals opposes the creation of an inspector general to oversee the police department, said unions have told him that high search numbers are tied to arrest quotas and performance goals. “Quotas have diluted the effectiveness of stop-and-frisk,” he said. “It is a policing tool, but not the only policing tool.”
Thompson also said he opposed anti-terrorism surveillance of mosques and Muslim communities without specific tips suggesting a potential or impending threat. “It opens a dangerous door based on religion,” he said. “I don’t believe in sending in officers if they are not following legitimate leads.”
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Despite having come within 4 percentage points of unseating Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009, when he was city comptroller, Thompson has struggled in this year’s crowded race, trailing behind Council Speaker Christine Quinn and, until recently, former Rep. Anthony Weiner.
When Weiner’s campaign hit a landmine late last month with new revelations of a tawdry phone and online extramarital relationship with a 22-year-old Indiana woman, Thompson and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio became locked in a tie for second place, according to a Quinnipiac University poll of likely Democratic primary voters, with 20 percent and 21 percent, respectively.
But Thompson appears to be struggling in his own African American community, an important ethnic base. At 22 percent, he’s statistically tied (considering a 4.6 percent margin of error) among likely black Democratic primary voters with Quinn (21 percent) and, surprisingly, Weiner (24 percent), who has made a top priority of reaching out to middle-class blacks.
When asked if Weiner should drop out of the race, 53 percent of black voters said no, fewer than the 64 percent of white voters who want him to quit.
“In the long run, it’s not an area of concern,” Thompson said. “Although black voters can be incredibly forgiving, I’m not concerned with where they will wind up on Election Day. As long as I continue to speak about the issues, I don’t think I will have a problem.”
The good news for Thompson is that he leads Quinn 50 percent to 40 percent in a potential Democratic primary runoff. And in a previous Quinnipiac poll he scored highest on moral character, with a total of 63 percent of Democrats giving him the two highest ratings on the scale. He got the lowest rating among likely voters for candidates they would definitely not choose, 5 percent, versus Weiner’s 28 percent and Quinn’s 31 percent.
But Thompson in the interview dismissed the significance of polls, saying that just before the 2009 race, one showed him even with Bloomberg among Democrats, when he in fact won them by a 3-1 margin.
He added that making his case this time around has been complicated by the media fascination with Weiner.
“There are discussions about issues that impact the city and will impact the city for years, if not decades to come,” said the candidate.
“Right now, all that is being covered is all about one person. That’s the thing that tends to be upsetting. You want to be in a substantive conversation.”
Henry Stern, founder of the public policy group NY Civic and a former councilman and city official, sees Thompson shifting to the right on issues like stop and frisk. “He’s not running to the left of Bloomberg, he is running down the center,” Stern said. “He hasn’t gone to rallies with Al Sharpton.”
He did, however, give an emotional speech calling stop-and-frisk an “institutionalized” version of racial profiling at a Brooklyn church following last month’s acquittal of a white neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida of the murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen. That led de Blasio to accuse Thompson of trying to “have it both ways” on the issue.
With Weiner’s fortunes shifting, Stern sees Thompson as well placed to capitalize. “It was Weiner’s race to lose, and now he has lost it with his actions,” Stern said. “But although [Thompson] almost beat Bloomberg, he has not yet established himself as a candidate with any crossover appeal. He can use the next month to establish himself. He has to assure the minority vote he will not betray them and shore up his left credentials now that that vote is in play.”
Thompson declined to address an assertion by Mayor David Dinkins in a book due out this fall, according to The New York Times, that racism was behind his 1993 defeat, and how any racism today may affect his campaign. “I’m not weighing in on that election,” he said. “It was 20 years ago, and this is a different city.”
He added, “I believe the people in New York City can make a decision based on merit, and I believe that in 2013, both my background and experience make me the most qualified person to be the next mayor.”
While working as a top aide to Brooklyn Borough President Howard Golden in the early ’90s and later as president of the Board of Education, Thompson forged close ties with Orthodox leaders and said he had a close understanding of issues facing the community, particularly regarding Jewish education.
He is sharply critical of the Board of Health’s decision last year, currently under federal court challenge, to require mohels to obtain written consent before using a circumcision procedure believed to put infants at risk of deadly infection.
“I thought the first mistake was the mayor not sitting down and talking to people,” said Thompson. “There was almost no discussion.” But like most of his rivals, Thompson declined to say exactly how he would deal with the issue, other than promising to revisit it and hold extensive conversations with the fervently Orthodox leaders who oppose the consent decree. He said his appointees to the Board of Health would not likely support such a measure.
Well-known Jewish New Yorkers who have contributed to Thompson’s campaign, according to public records, include mega-developers Gary Barnett of Extell, Joshua Muss of Muss Development and Larry Silverstein of Silverstein Properties; former deputy mayor and current CEO of Continuum Health Partners Stanley Brezenoff; outgoing City University of New York Chancellor Matthew Goldstein; hedge fund mogul and Jewish community philanthropist Michael Steinhardt; and Dr. Oleg Gutnick, a Russian-born ob-gyn who ran for City Council in Brooklyn as a Republican in 2005.
Asked to cite some of his Jewish advisers, Thompson cited Chaskell Bennet and Jonathan Schenker, both of whom are Orthodox and part of the Flatbush Jewish community. Bennett is a businessman and board member of Agudath Israel of America, and Schenker is a former aide in the comptroller’s office who later served on the staff of Bob Turner when he was briefly a Republican congressman representing Weiner’s district. Schenker is now a consultant on Thompson’s campaign as well as that of Peter Vallone Jr. for Queens borough president.
Thompson recalled his work as Board of Education president with a committee aimed at maximizing public aid for parochial schools. “We were able to find a lot of ways to be helpful, everything from transportation to computer software. There is a lot to be determined and left up to the public school system. I will look for a chancellor who shares my views and takes a more relaxed approach to try and make sure services can be delivered.” Thompson said he has heard from parochial school leaders that “there could be a little more flexibility from the [Department of Education] at times. Working together we could make sure everyone comes away happy.”
Asked how his endorsement by the United Federation of Teachers, which opposes any diversion of resources away from public schools, might affect that promise, Thompson said, “I’m proud to have the UFT support and I’m looking forward to working with teachers in the public schools as well as the union, but at the same time I’m not going to change what I believe in.”
Unlike one of his rivals, de Blasio, Thompson said he does not believe the current member-item funds allocation process in the City Council, which benefits community-based organizations but has been linked to several cases of corruption, should be abolished. Such allocations amount to roughly $4 million in the current city budget for Jewish community organizations that offer social services.
“It’s clear that Speaker Quinn has not created a process that will present change,” he said. “I would like to toughen things up [and impose] a greater level of scrutiny.”
Thompson also said he favored base-lining, or adding a permanent budget line for some senior programs in the city that currently have to fight for grants to stay open year to year.
“Organizations that have been wonderfully productive for years and years all of a sudden have lost their contracts,” he lamented. “We should be supporting these groups instead of pulling dollars away from them.”