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.”
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.
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.
Source: New York Times