The New York Police Department is facing backlash after the release of body-worn footage showing the fatal officer-involved shooting of a Black man that many say contradicts the NYPD reports of the incident.
The police agency released videos showing the May shooting of Rameek Smith in the Bronx on Sept. 2.
The day after the incident, NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell said Smith was involved in a shootout with officers, leaving one officer injured and Smith succumbing to his headshot wound.
However, many say the footage released nearly four months later does not show Smith shooting at cops. The edited videos also leave unanswered questions about what happened before and after the fatal shooting.
Smith, who was awaiting sentencing for a gun charge, was used as ammo for Mayor Eric Adams‘ arguments against bail reform and the need for his new neighborhood units. The shooting was also applauded by Sewell, who called Smith “a dangerous criminal who should not have been on the streets of the Bronx or anywhere else.”
Still, after the release of the videos by the department, many in the comments labeled the officers liars and murderers.
“Two shots to the back of the head and the media uncritically says that this was a shootout. MURDER,” wrote Avery Lane.
“Body cameras…… wow, police that lie and officers that go along with the lie, everyone from top down should be charged with obstruction of justice. And officers at the top should be held just as accountable as officers at the bottom,” wrote Tristen Wright.
The NYPD said Officers Dennis Vargas and John Echevarria were patrolling in uniform in an unmarked car near Third Avenue and Claremont Parkway when they spotted Smith.
Vargas got out of the vehicle and approached Smith on the sidewalk, who started to run. While Vargas pursued the man on foot, Smith pulled a 48 9mm firearm, which authorities said was concealed. Police officials said ballistic evidence shows Smith discharged the weapon at least three times. One bullet struck Vargas in the left arm.
NYPD officials said Vargas then fired his service weapon eleven times, and Echevarria, who followed in the vehicle, fired eight shots.
“Having been struck by the gunfire, Mr. Smith then fell to the ground and was taken into custody without incident,” an NYPD spokesperson in a YouTube video with the release of the videos. Smith died hours later at a hospital.
Vargas was released from the hospital the next morning and received a hero’s homecoming celebration.
“I have to commend our courageous officers. This is what we asked them to do, and they’re on the streets every day and night risking their lives on behalf of New Yorkers,” Sewell said during a May 11 news conference.
The department released videos from Vargas and Echevarria’s body-worn cameras, each less than 2 minutes. There are 60 seconds without audio before the camera activates. Both videos cut off right after the shots.
Vargas’ video shows the vehicle pulling next to Smith on the sidewalk as the officer gets out to speak to him. There is no audio, so it is unclear why Vargas approached the man, who immediately started running.
However, the video doesn’t clearly show if or when Smith fired his gun. The camera is in unison with the officer’s swift body movement, and Smith is out of the frame for a brief moment before Vargas shoots.
Some viewers said they heard gunfire separate from the officers just as the audio came on, and others said they saw a flash, but many said the quality of the video is too poor to determine what happened.
“These cameras suck. No image stabilization. Crappy low light capabilities. Where’s the sound for most of the video? I’m not seeing where the suspect supposedly fired any shots, nor could I make out any muzzle flashes,” wrote YouTube Rainkloud. “I don’t understand why this video doesn’t provide a time stamp for when the suspect produces a weapon and fires.”
NYPD officials said they found the weapon on the scene while investigating the incident. Echevarria’s video shows him firing the shots while standing next to the passenger side of the vehicle.
Some critics also say the short videos do not show Vargas being shot and questioned his injuries after leaving the hospital.
Officials have not stated why the officers approached Smith. The 25-year-old was under mental health supervision, awaiting sentencing for carrying a gun while on probation for a robbery charge.
Adams immediately blamed the incident on the state’s bail reform law that blocks judges from holding suspects in jail who cannot afford to pay bail.
“People want to ask, why am I cracking down on fare evasions? That’s why,” the mayor said the day after the shooting. “People want to ask why we conducted 300,000 station inspections. That’s why.”
However, reports show a judge denied prosecutors’ request for bail because of Smith’s mental health history. Smith was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia when he was 16, sources told the New York Post.
He pleaded guilty to the weapons charge in December and was placed under the care of RevCore, a mental health and addiction treatment program. Prosecutors argued that Smith should’ve been held on bail because of a weapons charge from his 2016 robbery conviction.
Vargas and Echevarria were members of the Patrol Borough Bronx Safety Team, one of many new police units created by Adams to crack down on crime, especially gun violence. The units have been compared to the department’s previous plainclothes units that were disbanded in 2020 after being involved in multiple police shootings and the subject of several complaints.
“The number of shootings we respond to every night is despicable,” Adams said.
Reports show Vargas was assigned to the Bronx safety team last October. He has received at least 39 civilian complaints from civilians, 12 of which were substantiated by the Civilian Complaint Review Board, according to reports. He is currently facing administrative charges, which could lead to dismissal, for allegations that he gave false statements to investigators, The New York Times reports.
Vargas was also sued twice for illegal searches.
The NYPD Force Investigation Division and the attorney general’s office are investigating the police shooting, which could take weeks or months to complete, the NYPD spokesperson said.
“After the investigation is complete, the facts of the case will be presented to the first deputy commissioner’s use of force review board, which will evaluate the evidence to determine if the use of force applied in this case was justified and within department guidelines,” he said.
Rebecca Kavanagh, a New York criminal defense attorney, told 1010 WINS the video does not show the officers’ justification for using deadly force.
“Mr. Smith was running away. Courts have repeatedly held that someone running away does not pose an imminent threat even if they have a gun,” Kavanagh said. “The police claim Mr. Smith fired a gun. That’s not reflected on the bodycam video. Even if Mr. Smith fired a gun, he was not an imminent threat to police once he was running away.”