Wall Street Journal
Updated Jan. 29, 2015
9:52 p.m. ET


Public Defenders Appear in Video Inciting Killing of Police

NYC Department of Investigation Said Video Advocated Killing Police

By REBECCA DAVIS O’BRIEN

JOHN MINCHILLO/ASSOCIATED PRESS
New York City Department of Investigation Commissioner Mark Peters in 2014. 

Staff members at a Bronx public-defenders organization took part in a rap video advocating the killing of police officers and later attempted to mislead city officials about the organization’s involvement, according to the New York City Department of Investigation.

In a report released Thursday, the DOI said two staff attorneys at the Bronx Defenders—a nonprofit group that receives public funds for its advocacy and legal representation for indigent defendants—appeared in a video called “Hands Up,” in which men are shown pointing a gun at an individual portraying an officer.

The two lawyers had encouraged the organization to participate in the music video after being approached by the company producing the video, according to the report.

A screenshot shows Ryan Napoli (left) and Kumar Rao, staff attorneys at Bronx Defenders, in a rap video titled "Hands Up." 

The Bronx Defenders’ offices appear in the video and its name appeared as a sponsor in the credits in an earlier version of the video, city officials said.

The video for “Hands Up,” by artists Uncle Murda, Maino and Jay Watts, was released on YouTube and WorldStarHipHop in early December and continues to be available on those platforms.

The report alleges “serious misconduct” by the two lawyers and “gross mismanagement” by the Bronx Defenders’ executive director, Robin Steinberg, who the report said didn’t discipline the two attorneys and sent “misleading letters” about the video to city officials.

Staff members later told investigators that they didn’t know the video would depict or endorse anti-police violence, according to the report, signed by Mark Peters, commissioner of the Department of Investigation.

Ms. Steinberg couldn’t be reached for comment.

The report identified the staff attorneys as Kumar Rao, who also served as a spokesman for the organization, and Ryan Napoli, a supervising attorney and team leader. Neither could be reached for comment.

In a statement on its website Thursday, The Bronx Defenders said the group “abhors the use of violence against the police under any circumstance,” adding: “The Bronx Defenders never approved the music video ‘Hands Up,’ and never saw it before it went online. We deeply regret any involvement in the video.”

In a statement on its website Monday, the group said, “The video was released without the Bronx Defenders authorization or approval. Since the video’s release, we have made numerous attempts through our attorneys to have the video taken down.”

According to the report, Messrs. Napoli and Rao told investigators they thought the organization would be able to edit the video before its release. Ms. Steinberg told investigators she had been told the video “addressed the issue of police brutality in low-income communities,” but didn’t know about the song’s explicit message.

The video shows footage of violent encounters between police and black civilians. Messrs. Rao and Napoli appear inside The Bronx Defenders’ office, with Mr. Rao appearing to console a tearful woman.

In the days after the video’s release, emails between Ms. Steinberg and various city and court officials reviewed by the DOI didn’t fully describe the extent of the Bronx Defenders’ involvement in the video, according to the report.

Mayor Bill de Blasio called the DOI’s findings “deeply disturbing,” and asked the Bronx Defenders to “take immediate action in response to the findings of DOI. Unless those actions are fully responsive to the serious issues raised here, the City will take all legal and contractual actions available to it.”

The Bronx Defenders has two contracts with the city that provide for about $20 million in annual funding, the majority of the organization’s financial support, the report says.

In a letter Thursday to the chairman of the group’s board of directors, the city gave the Bronx Defenders until next Wednesday to provide a “detailed plan of action” to address the issues in the report.

“The actions of your employees and the Executive Director have put in jeopardy the effectiveness of the services that they are obliged to deliver to indigent clients in the city,” Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, wrote.

Bronx Defenders Chairman Earl Ward, of law firm Emery Celli Brinckerhoff & Abady, couldn’t be reached for comment.

Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson also denounced the video. “There is no place in our profession for expressions like those in this video,” Mr. Johnson said in a statement. “Even more appalling, they come from a city-funded organization.”

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, which represents police officers, asked the city to shut down the Bronx Defenders and disbar the lawyers involved.