February 9, 2015 5:15 pm

Bronx ‘Offenders’ Are Ruled Out of Order And Out of Their Jobs


Two Bronx Defenders attorneys who encouraged and appeared in a rap video that showed two men pointing guns at the head of a white actor playing a police officer have resigned under pressure, and the group’s executive director was suspended without pay for 60 days, city officials said last week.

A Department of Investigation report on the organization’s involvement with the “Hands Up” video Jan. 29 faulted the two attorneys, Kumar Rao and Ryan Napoli. It said they had objected to profanity but not to lyrics encouraging the murder of police officers (“Fo’ Mike Brown and Sean Bell a cop gotta get killed”). And it said they should not have counted on assurances by producers that they could dictate changes in the video before it was released.

Group’s Head Negligent

The report also criticized executive director Robin Steinberg for failing to investigate the lyrics and the rappers involved before approving it, issuing misleading statements about it and declining to discipline Mr. Rao and Mr. Napoli.

The two lawyers appeared in the video, and parts of it were filmed in the Bronx Defenders offices, which were identified by signage.

Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch, a prominent critic of the video, said of the two attorneys, “While it’s good that they are gone from the organization, that still does not account for the violation of their oaths as officers of the court. In our view they should have been fired immediately, disbarred from practicing law and the city’s funding for the Bronx Defenders withdrawn.” Other police-union leaders also criticized the video.

Mayor de Blasio, who was in the middle of making moves to shore up support among rank-and-file police officers who had expressed their displeasure with him by turning their backs at the funerals of two murdered officers, pounced on the DOI report.

‘Won’t Tolerate It’

“Any endorsement of violence against police officers is completely unacceptable and will absolutely not be tolerated,” he said when it was released. “...The administration has demanded Bronx Defenders take immediate action in response to the findings of DOI.”

At stake was city funding of about $20 million a year. City officials said the organization, which provides attorneys for indigent defendants, was given a deadline of Feb. 4. That’s the date when news of the personnel moves was first reported. The response by Bronx Defenders was acceptable, city officials said.

Bronx Defenders also told the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice that it would submit to an outside review of management changes meant to avoid similar situations in the future, appoint a chief compliance officer and establish new training for attorneys, officials said.

Not What He Expected

Mr. Lynch also sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder because the Department of Justice provides some funding for Bronx Defenders. Mr. Holder has not responded, the PBA said.

Mr. Rao told the New York Times, “This wasn’t some sort of nefarious project. This was designed to be fully about raising awareness in the community about the kinds of legal services that an office like ours could provide for people affected by this issue.”

He said he understood the political considerations that led to Mr. de Blasio’s condemnation and actions.

In his resignation letter to Ms. Steinberg, he stated that he had “received assurances by the producer that we would be provided the opportunity to review and edit the lyrics and video before its release. Contrary to our understanding, the video that was released contained lyrics and images that I never approved and would never support, personally or on behalf of the organization.”

Confirmed by Rapper

In a Feb. 3 radio interview, Uncle Murda, one of the rappers who made the video, confirmed that the lawyers were promised they could review the video before it was posted.

Ms. Steinberg declined to comment.

After the DOI report was released, Bronx Defenders posted on its website, “The Bronx Defenders abhors the use of violence against the police under any circumstance. We have always been an organization that is committed to preserving life, dignity and respect for all people. The Bronx Defenders never approved the music video ‘Hands Up,’ and never saw it before it went online. We deeply regret any involvement with this video.”