New York Times
Jan. 29, 2015


Lawyers in Anti-Police Video Knew of Violent Tone, Inquiry Finds

By BENJAMIN MUELLER

The music video opens with symbols of the police protest movement that gained traction last fall: images of Eric Garner being wrestled to a sidewalk on Staten Island and of black men with their arms raised in a pose of surrender.

Its tone soon changes. Two men appear, holding a gun to the head of a man dressed in a New York Police Department uniform. And as rappers sing about killing police officers in response to Mr. Garner’s death, two other men, portrayed as defense lawyers, are shown working on a case.

The men were not actors. They were lawyers from a city-funded nonprofit, the Bronx Defenders, and they had agreed to be part of the video, which was posted to YouTube soon after a grand jury on Staten Island voted in early December not to bring charges in Mr. Garner’s death.

On Thursday, New York City investigators sharply criticized the two public defenders for participating, concluding that they knew beforehand that the lyrics endorsed deadly retribution for the death of Mr. Garner, in July after a confrontation with police officers.

The city’s Department of Investigation also determined that the founder and executive director of the Bronx Defenders, Robin Steinberg, approved the organization’s involvement without reviewing the lyrics and later misled city officials about her role. The city has demanded that the Bronx Defenders, known for its aggressive defense of low-income and minority clients and receives about $20 million a year in city funds, take disciplinary action against the two lawyers by Feb. 4.

In a statement on Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio condemned “any endorsement of violence against police officers.”

The report came several weeks after the killing of two officers in Brooklyn, an attack that heightened tensions in the city, which had witnessed weeks of protests over the grand jury’s decision in the Garner case.

Mr. de Blasio, whom many police officers accused of tolerating anti-police rhetoric by some protesters, was pointed in his criticism of the Bronx Defenders, saying that unless the group promptly addresses the concerns, “the city will take all legal and contractual actions available to it.”

The city could cancel its contract with the Bronx Defenders, which serves about 35,000 clients a year.

“If you’re an organization primarily funded by the city, you can’t use your premises and you can’t sponsor videos that call for killing police officers,” said Mark Peters, commissioner of the Investigation Department. He added, “When people in your organization do something that so damages your reputation, it also damages your ability to efficiently advocate in front of judges and in front of prosecutors.”

In a statement, the Bronx Defenders said its employees never saw the video before it was posted online or approved the images that were used. “The Bronx Defenders abhors the use of violence against the police under any circumstance,” the statement reads.

The song was performed by the rappers Maino, Jay Watts and Uncle Murda, who has a history of writing songs promoting the killing of police officers, according to the investigation.

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Its opening verses, referring to two unarmed black men who were killed by officers, advocate reprisals against the police: “For Mike Brown and Sean Bell, a cop got to get killed.” It continues, “Time to start killing these coppers.”

A lawyer for the Bronx Defenders is shown comforting a grieving woman in the organization’s office on 161st Street and later conferring with a colleague. According to the Investigation Department, credits at the end of the video, which have since been removed, listed the Bronx Defenders as a sponsor.

The two lawyers, Kumar Rao and Ryan Napoli, whose salaries are paid through contracts with New York City, told investigators they did not expect the video to appear online before they had been allowed to review it. But the investigation found that they expressed enthusiasm about participating in the video even after they had read the lyrics.

“I love this song!” Mr. Napoli wrote in an email to Mr. Rao. His only concern, he wrote, was about the use of a vulgarity in reference to police officers.

The investigation also found that in email conversations with city officials after the video was released, Ms. Steinberg never mentioned that she had approved the organization’s involvement or that the two lawyers had read the lyrics before they agreed to appear. In one email to a city official, she wrote that she had just become aware of the video when it was posted online.

Through a spokeswoman, Ms. Steinberg declined to comment on Thursday. Phone messages left for Mr. Rao and Mr. Napoli on Thursday were not returned.

The report says the Bronx Defenders told investigators that they were prepared to issue all three employees 30-day suspensions without pay and to demote Mr. Rao and Mr. Napoli.

But in a statement, the Bronx district attorney, Robert T. Johnson, deemed those steps “insufficient.”

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association went further, demanding that the Bronx Defenders be shut down.

Stephen Gillers, a professor at New York University School of Law, said the Bronx Defenders initially distinguished themselves from other legal aid organizations through their zeal. The two lawyers in the video, Mr. Gillers said, appeared to take that aggressive stance too far.

“The quality of any lawyer is going to depend upon cooperation from other players in the criminal justice system,” he said. “They may find it a little bit of a challenge to get that kind of cooperation now.”

A version of this article appears in print on January 30, 2015, on page A22 of the New York edition with the headline: Lawyers in Anti-Police Video Knew of Violent Tone, Inquiry Finds.