“Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” Ethics: The Public Defenders And The Rap Video

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Kumar Rao and Ryan Napoli, two  lawyers who worked for the New York City-funded public defenders group called the Bronx Defenders, ran headlong into an ethics mess when they appeared in a video posted on YouTube the December day after the grand jury voted not to bring criminal charges in Eric Garner’s suspicious “choke-hold” death. In the video titled “Hands Up” (of course), Rao and Napoli comfort a grieving mother at the Bronx Defenders offices as they work on a case involving police brutality. The video also includes the image of a white man in a police uniform with pistols pointed in his face and the back of his head by black men, as rappers chant that it’s “time to start killing these coppers.”

Nice.

The video came under heavy criticism from Mayor de Blasio and others. City-paid public defenders should not be lending their positions and the prestige of their office to calls for retribution and violence. Lawyer Rao defended his appearance, arguing that the video supported the mission of the Bronx Defenders to zealously defend minority clients, and that a rap video was an ideal vehicle to make their services known. Gallant try, but no cigar. That message about killing cops is not part of the organization’s mission presumably, nor is it a responsible message for those in the justice system to appear to endorse.

Prodded by police, the city gave the Bronx Defenders until last week to announce satisfactory discipline for those involved in the video or lose its  $20 million contract. Rao and Napoli resigned, and the executive director, Robin Steinberg, will serve a 60-day, unpaid suspension.

Good.

 Rao said he and his colleague agreed to be in the video after the producer’s girlfriend, another Bronx Defenders employee, contacted them. This was an Ethics Chess mistake of major proportions. Two employees of the city who are part of the justice system agree to participate in a video project condemning police in the middle of the Ferguson controversy—wow. What were they thinking? Unless the lawyers could be certain that the video would not be seen as anti-police or racially divisive, any participation in such a project would be reckless and irresponsible. The title alone, perpetuating the false narrative that Michael Brown was an unarmed innocent gunned down by Officer Darren Wilson while trying to surrender, should have been sufficient reason to stay out of it. Roa said found some of the lyrics he originally reviewed “troubling.”  Gee, really? Yes, I’d say advocating cop-killing is troubling. So is joining in the acceptance of racially-divisive lies.

That was the lawyers’ cue to say, “Sorry, we can’t do this.” Instead, Rao said, he expected to help edit the video before its release. Again, unless both lawyers had strict control over how the image of their office and their profession would be used, they could not responsibly allow themselves to be filmed for such a video. Rao said he was “shocked” at the images and words that the rappers had chosen. He sounds like thousands of betrayed, wide-eyed starlets who are promised that they would be doing “art” and who end up topless in porn films. Lawyers are supposed to be more savvy than that. Lawyers have to be more savvy that that.

Interestingly, appearing in the video violates no legal ethics rules whatsoever. Lawyers have full access to their First Amendment rights: they can express their opinions and political preferences in public forums as long as they don’t break the law or encourage others to. They can even appear to be comrades in arms with rappers calling for the executions of police officers. Bar discipline is not an issue. Appearing in the video, however, was irresponsible in the extreme, especially knowing that New York City could legitimately sever ties with an organization that appeared to be advocating the murder of its employees.

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Source: New York Times

22 thoughts on ““Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” Ethics: The Public Defenders And The Rap Video

  1. If I am correct they were not employed directly by the city but by the organization called “Bronx Defenders”. Many private attorneys can be paid to be a public defender. So I don’t believe it is correct to say that the are “employees of the city”.

    That being said, if the city contracts with the Bronx Defenders it should be able to pull the contract if the Bronx Defenders (or attorneys employed by them) act in a way that is harmful to that relationship. Clearly their participation in a video that advocates the murder of police is harmful to the relationship and obviously the attorneys should have known better.

    Had they not resigned, they should have been fired. Fortunately that is not needed.

    The following is now seen on the splash page of their site:
    “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.”

    • I worked for the Mass defenders, who are an equivalent group in Boston. Since the city pays for their operations, and it is a budget item, it’s a government entity for all intents and purposes. The group works for the city in that way, and also because their mission is service to the city. A wholly funded municipally supported entity works for the city, once removed. If it worked directly for the city, then the Mayor could fire the lawyers. This way, he just says, do what I say, or you’re dead. There’s no significant difference.

  2. So, were the lawyers actually shocked by the video, or were they shocked only once they realized they could get in trouble for it? I suspect they were correct in thinking a rap video was good advertising for their company. I also suspect they knew full-well what was in it, but also knew that the message would play well to their target market.

  3. I’ve been following this pretty closely, and I’m pretty sure there’s no way Robin Steinberg built up the Bronx Defenders so successfully over the years only to one day say, “Hey! Let’s make a rap video about killing cops!”

    This isn’t bad ethics thinking, it’s a lack of ethics thinking. Nobody played your “ethics chess” to try to imagine what could go wrong. The idea came about informally through a personal connection between an employee and a producer for a local rapper, and it slipped through without getting a proper vetting. Nobody was ever put in charge of approving participation in rap videos, so nobody gave it any serious thought, and nobody realized that nobody was giving it any serious thought.

    I’m sure the Bronx Defenders are pretty good at the ethics of criminal defense and indigent representation, but that’s not what this was. I think part of the lesson here is that when you stray outside your normal area of expertise or your normal line of business, you are straying into territory where you don’t know the risks, including the ethical risks.

    • Great analysis Mark, and you’re right, that is exactly how this happens. And it happens a lot..this is just a particularly amazing example.

      I also think it’s an example of passion, emotion and tunnel vision blunting ethics chess, and indeed ethics consciousness. In law especially, distance is critical. Passion leads to mistakes, certitude about being “right” leads to hubris.

    • Maybe, but I think that it inadvertently revealed the prevailing attitude of the organization. I’m hoping that Dragin-Dragon will weigh in with his take on organizational psychology.

  4. “…supported the mission of the Bronx Defenders to zealously defend minority clients”

    How is that a mission item?

    Does “zealously defend all clients” not cut it?

    • You know what’s insane? It’s actually considered racist to point out this discrepancy by saying something like “I wonder how “zealously defend white clients” would go over?”

      • Don’t get me wrong, I’m not unaware of what the justification for that would be, which is that minorities are opressed and thus it’s bad form to assume equal footing. The simple fact of the matter is that this is no longer true.

    • Well, I was giving them the benefit of the doubt, like if they put ads in fortune cookies and said they had a mission to zealously defend Asian-American clients. I would assume that the statement wasn’t exclusive.

      • Right, the statement does not logically exclude other groups but there is still a rhetorical implication…

        The same would go for “our mission to vigorously defend members of the Ku Klux Klan”… Hey! No harm no foul! We didn’t say we won’t defend the darkies either!

  5. It’s like some kind of compound double standard racism, or something like that. The list of things that are “racist” seems to be exponentially growing lately.

  6. As an aside, I wonder what they think would happen if they started “killing these coppers”? Do they think that NYPD cops would cower in fear, or maybe start being a little more careful about messing with the wrong people? Do they think that they would post pouty-face shots of cops, holding signs that say “save our boys in blue”, or that they would vow to “aggressively prosecute these scofflaws”? NYC cops are very clannish, and I think their response to any sort of cop-directed violence that deviates significantly from the norm would be swift, brutal, and probably a bit indiscriminate.

  7. Joe, you get your wish. There is more going on here than a truly stupid ethics lapse. If Steinberg really put a lot of effort into founding this organization, then why was he unaware of two of his employee’s filming a video, IN HIS OFFICES, advocating the killing of cops? Has he decided that after building what is an apparently successful business, he has no further responsibility? Or, perhaps, has he promulgated no ‘Rules of Conduct’ for his people? Are his hiring practices so lax that he hired a pair of stupid dunderheads to function as attorneys in his business? I could actually go on for quite a while but you get the idea. Of the two extreme management schema, with the other end of the spectrum being tyrannical micro-management, I believe this to be the more harmful…benevolent disengagement. The smiling, god-like CEO sits in his office and beams at his employees without having a clue what is going on. This attitude seems to have made it to the national level, at some point, and is FIRMLY entrenched in the White House, at present.

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