A city-funded legal aid organization knowingly participated in a music video where artists rapped that it was “time to start killing these coppers” and pointed guns at a man dressed as an NYPD officer, the city’s Department of Investigation has found.
The Bronx Defenders, a criminal defense firm that receives about $20 million every year in public funding, let rappers Uncle Murda and Maino shoot portions of their “Hands Up” music video in their offices near Yankee Stadium and then tried to cover up its involvement, according to a DOI report.
The video, which was posted on YouTube by World Star Hip Hop in December after grand juries on Staten Island and in Ferguson, Missouri, decided not to charge officers in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, shows several shots inside The Bronx Defenders offices and features two of the legal firm’s attorneys, the report says.
The video also includes shots of the two rappers pointing guns at actors dressed as NYPD officers and includes the lyrics “For Mike Brown and Sean Bell a cop got to get killed.” Credits at the end of the video list The Bronx Defenders as its sponsor.
“Advocating the killing of police officers is unacceptable and offensive,” said DOI Commissioner Mark G. Peters.”
According to the agency's report, the production company shooting the video contacted the firm in early September about shooting the video. One of the two staffers later shown in the clip wrote in an email Sept. 13, “I love the song!” and asked to have a curse word cut from the lyrics. The email made no mention of the lines about killing police, despite the staffer's awareness of them, DOI said.
After the video came out, the DOI report says, Bronx Defenders Executive Director Robin Steinberg failed to discipline the two attorneys seen in the video and later tried to mislead city officials looking into the firm’s involvement in the video.
The DOI obtained at least seven email communications about the video between The Bronx Defenders and members of the NYPD, Bronx County District Attorney's office, Bronx judges and the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, and found none mentioned staffers had been aware of the lyrics for months prior to its release.
The DOI report said neither Steinberg nor anyone else at Bronx Defenders asked to review the video when they knew its release was imminent. Steinberg also apparently did not ask her staff to research the singers the group was agreeing to be involved with; such research would have unveiled multiple earlier songs by Uncle Murder about killing police officers, the report found. None of the emails mentioned those circumstances either, according to the DOI.
"Instead, the emails provided a selective and misleading recitation of the circumstances surrounding The Bronx Defenders' involvement in the video," the report said.
One email between Steinberg and a Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice staffer indicated The Bronx Defenders saw a version of the video prior to its release that was different than the one that came out, though Steinberg told DOI investigators she had never seen the video prior to its release. Steinberg also neglected to mention that the two attorneys who participated in the video had her permission to do so, and she did not address the lyrics -- or the attorneys' awareness of them, according to the DOI.
"As such, Steinberg's statements, while perhaps not legally perjurious, were clearly misleading," the DOI report found.
DOI did not recommend any punitive actions for Steinberg or The Bronx Defenders in its report, referring questions to City Hall.
Mayor de Blasio called the DOI's findings "deeply disturbing" and said his administration demanded the group take "immediate action" in response to the report.
"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 mayor said in a statement.
"Any endorsement of violence against police officers is completely unacceptable and will absolutely not be tolerated," the statement continued. "Keeping New York the safest big city in the country requires that we are vigilant about the security of the nation’s finest police force and the communities they are sworn to protect. Today’s report signals a serious failure to take this role seriously."
In a statement, The Bronx Defenders said it never approved the music video and never saw it before it went online. The group said it "deeply regrets" any involvement with the production.
"The Bronx Defenders abhors the use of violence against the police under any circumstance," the statement said. "We have always been an organization that is committed to preserving life, dignity and respect for all people."