Body camera video doesn’t show what led NYPD to kill a man in the Bronx

The NYPD released body-camera footage from a police killing in the Bronx in May that raises new questions about the fatal use of force, including: When did the victim shoot police, as alleged?

The images, released Friday nearly four months after the shooting, do not confirm the NYPD’s version of the story: that 25-year-old Rameek Smith fired a gun at officers, wounding one and prompting a response. police fatality. It does not clearly show Smith shooting at police, or an officer being hit in the arm. And it doesn’t show officers finding the victim’s gun that they said was found at the scene.

The footage also sheds no light on why they were going after Smith, who suffered from mental illness, in the first place.

However, it is difficult to see each frame clearly, and the audio from the cameras did not come on until just before the two officers fired.

At the time, the incident sparked a fiery answer from Mayor Eric Adams, because he said it indicated the city had become increasingly lawless due in part to criminal justice reforms. And he thanked police officers, whom he said continue to do their jobs even as repeat offenders get a pass from a lax criminal justice system.

But the shooting also faced increased scrutiny from activists who oppose aggressive police tactics because the officers who shot were part of the new Adams Neighborhood Safety Teams, which are tasked with recovering illegal weapons and arresting those considered to be illegal. likely to commit violent acts. To some, these units are reminiscent of earlier squads of plainclothes officers who jumped out of cars to chase suspected criminals and used violence at a disproportionate rate, prompting the previous NYPD administration to eliminate them. .

The new Neighborhood Safety Teams wear modified NYPD uniforms and operate from unmarked vehicles, prompting speculation that Smith may not have known who was after him.

But Adams portrayed Smith as a violent criminal hell-bent on hurting people. In 2020, while on probation for a robbery conviction, Smith was arrested for unlawfully carrying a weapon after he was caught jumping the turnstile at Coney Island. He pleaded guilty to the crime last year and was due back in court for sentencing a month after his death.

Adams said Smith should have been jailed on that weapons charge. And he pointed to the state’s bail reform laws, which prevent judges from keeping people who can’t post bail for certain crimes in jail, as to blame.

However, that argument did not hold up. Smith, who was on probation for a robbery conviction at the time of the arrest, could have been held on bail, a spokesperson for the Bronx District Attorney’s Office told Gothamist, but a judge released him on his own recognizance. the.

Smith was assigned to a mental health program. Lawyers from the Legal Aid Society who represented him released a statement in May saying Adams was falsely “frightening fear” about a “father and son.”

“In the end, the life of a young man struggling with multiple ailments was cut short, and the public should not lose sight of that, regardless of the City Council’s inflammatory comments,” Legal Aid spokesman Redmond Haskins said.

According to the NYPD’s account of the incident, on May 10 at around 10:45 p.m. on Bathgate Avenue, two officers together fired 19 shots “during a confrontation with an armed subject.” Smith allegedly fired three shots at officers with a gun he was carrying illegally, police said, hitting officer Dennis Vargas once in the left arm and prompting officers to return fire and hit Smith in the head.

Smith later died in hospital. Vargas, 32, was treated and released for his gunshot wound.

New body camera footage shows Vargas getting out of his police vehicle without identification and approaching Smith, who appears to be walking on the sidewalk. There is no audio at this time. Smith gets away and a foot chase ensues through traffic. Seconds later, the audio clicks and an officer’s gun appears in the frame. Shots are fired. Then the video ends.

The incident remains under investigation by both the New York police and the state attorney general’s office. Interviews and forensic tests are continuing, police said.

Over the course of his eight-year career with the NYPD, Vargas has faced 39 complaints through the Civilian Complaint Review Board, of which 12 have been substantiated.

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