EDITOR'S NOTE: After publishing this story, Gothamist heard from experts who disagreed with our analysis of the body-worn camera footage released by the NYPD. Our audience also debated what the video showed, or didn't show. We followed up with additional reporting and interviews with video forensic experts and others who analyzed the video. You can read more here.
NYPD released bodycam footage of a police killing in the Bronx in May that raises new questions about the fatal use of force, including: When did the victim shoot at police, as alleged?
The footage, released on Friday, nearly four months after the shooting, fails to confirm the NYPD version of the story – that Rameek Smith, 25, fired a gun at officers, wounding one and prompting the fatal police response. It doesn’t clearly show Smith shooting at police, nor an officer getting hit in the arm. And it doesn’t depict officers finding the victim’s weapon that they said was found at the scene.
The footage also does not shed light on why they were pursuing Smith, who suffered from mental illness, in the first place.
It is, however, difficult to clearly see every frame, and the cameras’ audio wasn’t activated until just before the two officers fired shots.
At the time, the incident prompted a fiery response from Mayor Eric Adams, because he said it indicated that 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 despite repeat offenders getting a pass from a lax criminal justice system.
But the shooting also faced further scrutiny by activists who oppose aggressive police tactics because the officers who fired the shots were part of Adams’ new Neighborhood Safety Teams, who are charged with recovering illegal guns and arresting those deemed likely to commit violence. To some, these units are reminiscent of previous squads of plainclothes officers who jumped out of cars to go after alleged criminals and used violence at disproportionate rates, prompting the prior NYPD administration to eliminate them.
The new Neighborhood Safety Teams wear modified NYPD uniforms and operate out of unmarked vehicles, which raised speculation that Smith may not have known who was pursuing him.
But Adams described Smith as a violent criminal bent on hurting people. In 2020, while on probation for a robbery conviction, Smith was arrested for illegally carrying a gun after he was caught turnstile-jumping in Coney Island. He pleaded guilty to the crime last year, and was due back in court for sentencing the month after he died.
Adams said Smith should have been jailed on that gun charge. And he indicated that the state’s bail reform laws, which prevent judges from holding those who can’t afford bail in jail on certain offenses, were to blame.
Yet that argument didn’t hold up. Smith, who was on probation for a robbery conviction at the time of the arrest, could have been held on bail, a Bronx District Attorney’s Office spokesperson told Gothamist, but a judge released him on his own recognizance.
Smith was assigned to a mental health program. Attorneys from the Legal Aid Society who represented him released a statement in May saying Adams was falsely “fear-mongering” about a “father and son.”
“In the end, a young man, struggling with multiple ailments, had his life cut short, and the public should not lose sight of that regardless of incendiary comments from City Hall,” said Legal Aid’s spokesperson, Redmond Haskins.
According to the NYPD account of the incident, on May 10th at about 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 the officers with a weapon he was carrying illegally, police said, hitting Officer Dennis Vargas once in the left arm and prompting the officers to return fire and hit Smith in the head.
Smith later died at the hospital. Vargas, 32, was treated and released for his gunshot wound.
The new bodycam footage shows Vargas exiting his unmarked police vehicle and approaching Smith, who appears to be walking down the sidewalk. There is no audio at this point. Smith runs away, and a foot chase through traffic ensues. Seconds later, the audio clicks in and an officer’s gun appears in the frame. Shots are fired. Then the video ends.
The incident remains under investigation by both the NYPD and the state attorney general’s office. Interviews and forensic tests continue, police said.
In the course of his eight-year NYPD career, Vargas has faced 39 complaints through the Civilian Complaint Review Board, with 12 of them substantiated.