World

Case dropped against NYC woman who called 911 on Black birdwatcher in Central Park

Amy Cooper, the white woman arrested last year for calling 911 on a Black birdwatcher in New York's Central Park, had her criminal case thrown out Tuesday after she completed a diversionary counselling program that prosecutors said was meant to educate her on the harm of her actions.

Judge dismisses charge of filing false police report in case seen by many as stark example of racism

Amy Cooper drew widespread condemnation after frantically calling 911 in May last year to claim she was being threatened by 'an African American man' who had confronted her for walking her dog without a leash in New York's Central Park. (Christian Cooper/The Associated Press)

Amy Cooper, the white woman arrested last year for calling 911 on a Black birdwatcher in New York's Central Park, had her criminal case thrown out Tuesday after she completed a diversionary counselling program that prosecutors said was meant to educate her on the harm of her actions.

Assistant District Attorney Joan Illuzzi-Orbon said Manhattan prosecutors were satisfied with Cooper's participation in the program — described as an alternative, restorative justice solution — and were not seeking to pursue the case any further. Such outcomes are standard for first-time offenders facing misdemeanour charges, Illuzzi-Orbon said.

Judge Anne Swern, presiding over the matter by video because of the coronavirus pandemic, agreed to dismiss the charge of filing a false police report and said she would seal Cooper's case file, in accordance with state law.

The confrontation, captured on video the same day Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, drew worldwide attention and was seen by many as a stark example of everyday racism.

Christian Cooper, the birdwatcher who recorded the video and was the subject of Amy Cooper's 911 call, said he was caught off guard and learned of the dismissal only when the Associated Press called him shortly thereafter. Illuzzi-Orbon said he declined to participate in the matter. (There is no relation between Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper). 

Christian Cooper later issued a statement highlighting what he said was another racial injustice, saying he was "far more outraged" by the U.S. Congress denying statehood to the mostly non-white District of Columbia "than by anything Amy Cooper did."

"That gross racial injustice could be fixed by Congress now, today, and that's what people should be focused on — not last year's events in Central Park." 

Amy Cooper's lawyer, Robert Barnes, praised prosecutors for a "thorough and honest inquiry" into the allegations and said he agreed with the decision to dismiss the case.

"We thank them for their integrity, and agree with the outcome," Barnes said. "Many others rushed to the wrong conclusion based on inadequate investigation, and for some, there may be legal consequences coming." 

Fired from job

Amy Cooper, 41, drew widespread condemnation after frantically calling 911 on May 25 to claim she was being threatened by "an African American man" who had confronted her for walking her dog without a leash.

When police called Amy Cooper back in an attempt to locate her in the park, she falsely claimed the man, Christian Cooper, had "tried to assault her," Illuzzi-Orbon said. The second call was not recorded on video, Illuzzi-Orbon said. It was previously reported incorrectly that Cooper was the one who called 911 again.

Illuzzi-Orbon said that when officers arrived, Christian Cooper was gone and Amy Cooper admitted he hadn't tried to assault her. Illuzzi-Orbon said Amy Cooper's false claim could have led to a physical confrontation between police and Christian Cooper if they had gotten to him first.

"The simple principle is: One cannot use the police to threaten another and, in this case, in a racially offensive and charged manner," Illuzzi-Orbon said.

After the incident, Amy Cooper was fired from her job as a portfolio manager at investment firm Franklin Templeton. Her actions were also condemned by the University of Waterloo, which she attended, in a statement on Twitter.

Court's dismissal criticized

Amy Cooper's diversionary program, run through a wing of the Center for Court Innovation and a Manhattan psychotherapy provider, included education about racial equality and five therapy sessions focused on making her appreciate that racial identities shape our lives, but that they shouldn't be used to cause harm, Illuzzi-Orbon said.

The prosecutor said Amy Cooper's therapist described it as a "moving experience" and that she learned "a lot in their sessions together."

To some, the dismissal of Amy Cooper's case after a series of counselling sessions felt like just a slap on the wrist.

Eliza Orlins, a public defender who is running to replace Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., tweeted: "This isn't surprising. This is how the system was designed to function — to protect the privileged from accountability."

Ernest Owens, a prominent Black journalist, tweeted: "White privilege, 2021." He also called out the "irony" of the case being dropped following the counselling program. 

Case inspired new law

In the video posted on social media, Christian Cooper claimed Amy Cooper's cocker spaniel was "tearing through the plantings" in the Ramble, a secluded section of Central Park popular with birdwatchers, and told her she should go to another part of the park. When she refused, he pulled out dog treats, causing her to scream at him to not come near her dog.

Amy Cooper also warned him she would summon police unless he stopped recording.

"I'm going to tell them there's an African American man threatening my life," Amy Cooper is heard saying in the video as she pulls down her face mask and struggles to control her dog.

"Please call the cops," said Christian Cooper.

"There's an African American man, I'm in Central Park, he is recording me and threatening myself and my dog. ... Please send the cops immediately!" she said during the 911 call before the recording stops.

Amy Cooper's 911 call inspired New York lawmakers to pass a law making it easier to sue a person who calls police on someone "without reason" because of their background, including race and national origin. San Francisco lawmakers passed a similar law.

Amid the backlash, Amy Cooper released an apology through a public relations service, saying she "reacted emotionally and made false assumptions about his intentions."

With files from CBC News

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