Full disclosure: Ryan Napoli is my brother. Nevertheless, nothing that is written here has been approved or authorized by Ryan Napoli or in any way represents his views or opinions. This is entirely based on my personal reading of the events and facts.
There is a growing phenomenon – an epidemic even — of false outrage that consumes our public discourse and is destroying the very fabric of the United States and our society. Whether it is trumped up panic over the imminent threats of Ebola, Shari’a law in the heartland, crypto-Muslim socialist presidents, vaccines gone bad, or the never-ending treasure trove of ludicrous conspiracy theories, our mainstream media, pundits and politicians are increasingly insulting our basic intelligence – while we all seem so willing to play along – to slight opponents and foes in a childish gotcha battle to gain the political upper hand in this new culture war.
When we snub our noses at the backward sectarian and tribal violence in places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan, maybe we should stop for a minute and a look in the mirror. Isn’t that where we’re headed at home by spewing the most absurd accusations and attacks based on shoddy, half-truths, partial evidence, and an all-or-nothing my team vs. your team mentality?
A fantastic example of this involves my brother, Ryan Napoli, a lawyer for the Bronx Defenders (together with his colleague Kumar Rao) accused of promoting violence against the police by appearing for under two seconds in a rap video that has been dubbed widely throughout the press as the “cop killing video” (example here) (note that no cop is actually killed in video).
The facts of the story as they pertain to Ryan Napoli, both as detailed in DOI investigation findings and through my own understanding of the events (obtained through the news, recent public statements by Kumar Rao, and my own understanding of the timeline of events) are far from damning.
In a nutshell, an employee at the Bronx Defenders whose boyfriend is a music producer asked Ryan whether the Bronx Defenders would be interested in participating in a rap video “concerning the policy brutality & police violence against unarmed citizens”. Ryan who has no authority – and never attempted to assume any such authority – to sign off on the Bronx Defenders’ participation in the video, followed office protocol and chain of command, forwarding the proposal for the project to those responsible in his organization and commented that any offensive lyrics could be edited.
From that point on, he played absolutely no decision-making role with regards to the Bronx Defenders’ role in the video.
His participation in the filming of the video was extremely limited. He neither offered to appear in the video nor sought out participation. And when he did finally agree to appear there was absolutely nothing offensive or controversial in the role that he portrays.
At no time did Ryan or anyone at the Bronx Defenders have any knowledge or reason to believe that the video would include a scene where a gun would be pointed at an actor dressed as a police officer or any other depiction of violence or threats against the police. Throughout the process, the staff at the Bronx Defenders in charge of signing off on the project were given assurances that they would have final veto rights over the lyrics and content of the video.
The record also clearly shows that the video was released without the Bronx Defenders knowledge or approval, and upon release of the video, the Bronx Defenders made an immediate statement denouncing the video and any violence against police officers and asking that their name be disassociated with the video.
The entire case against Ryan comes down to the fact that he allegedly made an email statement that he “loved the song” and thus, must of have been fully aware of certain anti-police lyrics and thus approved of them. That of course is ludicrous.
Mark Draughn’s Je Suis Bronx Defenders does any excellent job at describing the utter silliness of the claims that the video and song center around “cop killing” rather than police violence towards African Americans, and that police outrage is not about the video but something else. But I am no expert on rap lyrics or New York politics, so I will leave it there.
What is very clear is that there is absolutely nothing in the record to support any allegation that Ryan Napoli has endorsed violence against the police, engaged in any unlawful activity, or violated any rules of ethics. It was never his role or responsibility to vet the lyrics or make any assurances to anyone. He never asked to take that role and that role was never assigned to him. With the sole exception of allowing himself to appear for two seconds in the video, he made absolutely no decisions whatsoever with regards to the Bronx Defenders participation in the project, made no misrepresentations to his superiors about the project or pressured them to approve the project.
As a result, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that Ryan Napoli engaged in any misconduct at all. His only real peccadillo here was saying that “he loved” this song.
Except for pure political expediency, there is no justification for asserting that Ryan Napoli failed to exercise judgment befitting an employee of the Bronx Defenders as concluded (though not supported by the facts) by the Bronx Defenders board. Doing so would be tantamount to sanctioning the female employee whose boyfriend was the producer for her poor judgment in picking a partner.
Go ahead and call me biased. I am and will gladly accept the label. But, I don’t know anyone who I consider better at doing his job – be it a lawyer, doctor or school teacher — than my brother. In my family, as in most families, we are made up of people with vastly diverging politics, worldviews and religious beliefs. And while we often disagree on all of these things, one thing that none of us would ever dispute is that when it comes to Ryan Napoli and what he does day-in and day-out, making personal sacrifices for his clients, he is undoubtedly a hero, one that we proudly take our children to watch and learn from.
When his fiancée suddenly fell gravely ill last summer, my brother took a temporary leave of absence from work to be by her side. For three full weeks he was by her bedside literally day and night, refusing to leave her alone. When she could no longer speak, he was her voice, and when she could no longer breathe on her own, he did everything he could to convince the doctors to keep her alive. And when she finally passed, Ryan took no additional time off from work but was back in the office giving himself fully to his clients.
Ryan is the epitome of what a public interest lawyer should be. He is a role model.
But don’t take my word for it. That is exactly what anyone who interacts with Ryan Napoli on a daily basis thinks about him. Earlier this week, Ryan and Kumar’s co-workers issued a letter to the Bronx Defenders board expressing their unfaltering admiration for Ryan and Kumar. While I am not at liberty to disclose the contents of that letter, the overwhelming sentiment about Ryan Napoli and Kumar Rao was one of complete admiration. Ryan was uniformly praised as a being a tireless advocate for his clients who demonstrated a unique sense of integrity and respect for his clients’ fundamental humanity.
Of course, the police union and the press have not wanted a nuanced version of the events. No one really wants to know what Ryan Napoli or Kumar Rao actually do for the Bronx Defenders or why what they do is so important. They don’t care that Ryan Napoli is a family defense lawyer who has dedicated the vast majority of his strength the past seven years to keeping families together. Ryan Napoli has kept a steady case load of 70-105 cases at a time over these seven years. In each and every one of those cases, the stakes were enormous: a mother or father was at risk of losing a child, a child at risk of losing a parent.
Maybe if we knew what the lives of Americans were like in the Bronx, we wouldn’t be so comfortable with the image we have of ourselves.
And certainly no cares that the most damning fact in the entire investigation relating to my brother – that he said he “loved the song”, ergo he must have signed off on the lyrics – occurred two weeks after his fiancée had passed away.
Instead, we are left with the most extreme cynicism and hypocrisy. A police union that does everything in its power to shield its members from any accountability whatsoever for their actions but calls foul at the smallest hint of a slight; in this case demanding defunding of the Bronx Defenders and disbarment for Ryan Napoli and Kumar Rao when no misconduct has been proven.
It is so indicative of our current climate that instead of accepting the Bronx Defenders’ original statements of apology and perhaps engaging directly with them in good faith, the police union made the conscious decision to ruthlessly go for the jugular. And to what end and for what purpose? Are the New York tax payers better off now that money was wasted on an investigation that concluded little more than what the Bronx Defenders had originally stated: a video was released featuring their name and lawyers without their final approval and they regret their appearance? Does anyone honestly doubt that the Bronx Defenders ever intended to promote violence against the police? I can only defer to Misters Draughn, Balko, and Greenfield on why the police union may have preferred to use all of its power and influence to damage the Bronx Defenders than to choose other less vindictive alternatives.
But what I ultimately find so troubling and outrageous about the police union’s campaign against the Bronx Defenders and staff – and the Mayor’s office’s willingness to take the bait — is that it has been clear since the beginning that neither the Bronx Defenders nor anyone within its organization (including Ryan Napoli or Kumar Rao) had any intention (or has ever had any intention) to promote anti-police violence or propaganda. In the wake of this proxy battle between the Mayor’s office and the police union, not only has Ryan Napoli’s reputation been slandered and person been threatened and defamed, these tactics of false indignation have proven themselves once again effective political tactics that only harm the interests of the American public.
[UPDATE FEB. 6, 2015: I have removed two paragraphs unrelated to the events described here and re-posted them separately here]